Agra Focus has been conducting a series of interviews on EU farm policy and one of the longest and most interesting to date is with Allan Buckwell. He is currently policy director with the (England and Wales) Country and Land Business Association, but is also chair of the policy committee run by the European Landowners Association. He was for many years a respected agricultural economics and policy academic at the now sadly diminished Wye College. Perhaps his most interesting role in policy terms was when he spent a year in DG Agri in 1995-6 and chaired a group which wrote a report on a Common Agricultural and Rural Policy for Europe.
The whole interview is well worth reading as is Agra Focus for those who wish to keep up to date with developments in the CAP debate. Over the next few days we shall publish some highlights from the interview.
Allan Buckwell said that in the 1990s there was a consensus that policy had to change and the direction in which it had to move was liberalisation. That meant moving away from distorting commodity markets. Now there is not the consensus on what direction to take the CAP.
Moreover, the broader European debate, which in 2005-6 seemed to be moving away from the accumulated outcome of 40 years of incrementalism was now replaced by very little strategic thinking at all. There was retrenchment all over Europe and a shift to Euroscepticism rather than taking a clean sheet of paper and thinking about what a new Europe could look like.
Allan Buckwell suggested that policy faced two challenges, a food challenge and an environmental challenge. Recent events suggested that there might also be a risk management challenge as well.
He reiterated his belief that the CAP should evolve to become a Food and Environmental Security Policy. There was no difficult in convincing people that environmental security was a big issue. ‘Unfortunately, coming from where I do, if you mention the words food security you are immediately accused of being a farmer protectionist and wanting higher prices.’
Buckwell insisted, ‘I am arguing that food and the environment are inter-related and there are such big market failures surrounding the environmental impacts of agricultural production, that this justifies a policy.’ What was needed was not the agricultural policy we have had for the last 40 years, but there was a clear job to be done.
Part of what he has in mind is stimulating agricultural development in the new member states and modernising infrastructure and marketing there. He also emphasises the need for research and development work on how one maintains the productivity of agriculture and yet reduce its environmental impact. These are worthwhile aims for public action.
Allan Buckwell expresses doubts about the efficacy of the Single Farm Payment. He comments, ‘It is a very simplistic stablization measure and the distribution of the payments is a big odd.’
Later in the interview, he explains, ‘I was never really a big fan of the Single Farm Payment. It was an absolutely necessary step to unhook support from prices … When you look at the payments per head or per hectare or per annual work unit by Member State, there is a variation of about 3-50 fold from the highest to the lowest.’
He also expresses doubts about the two pillar distinction which has been regarded, perhaps too uncritically, as a central plank of the recent development of the CAP in order to increase spending on the ‘multifunctional’ or public goods aspects of agriculture. He notes, ‘The distinction between the two pillars served a purpose. If it’s creating an obstacle to the development of a better policy, then let’s scrap it.’
He comments, ‘There is little doubt that Pillar 2 is becoming unpopular. It is unpopular with farmers: many farmers in many countries say they cannot access the schemes that are available. They see it as bureaucratic, and also complain that money is leaking away to others. The bureaucrats and the administration say that it is a complex system with very high administrative costs and co-financing puts off Member States from doing more of it.’
He argues that co-financing is the key issue. If co-financing rules are stopping sensible reform, they should be changed. It might be better to co-finance everything with the member state contribution related to the national income per head. What is needed, he argues, is an explicit debate about the underlying principle rather than about ‘funny little new programmes.’