Thursday, June 30, 2005

Leaving the opposition floundering

In what is a clearly co-ordinated plan to rack up the pressure on the EU budget issue, headlined in both The Daily Telegraph and The Independent, Blair and Brown yesterday linked CAP funding with their latest cause cel├Ębre, poverty in Africa, demanding that the EU's agriculture policy be abolished in its entirety.

In so doing, they have not only gone further than any previous British government, they have managed to capture the moral high ground and discomforted the French. Even better, from a domestic stance, they have completely outflanked the supposedly Eurosceptic Conservative Party which, coincidentally, has just issued its programme for reform of the CAP , leaving the Party once again floundering.

The essence of the Blair/Brown message is that, as The Independent reports it, "Farm subsidies keep Africa in poverty". This was Brown speaking to Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund (nice touch), in the run-up to the G8 summit at Gleneagles next week, declaring that developed countries could "no longer ignore" the "hypocrisy" of a regime that distorted world trade and held back Africa's poorest nations.

That was matched by a parallel initiative from Blair who, during Prime Minister's Questions yesterday, suggested for the first time that the CAP should be abandoned as part of a complete overhaul of the EU's finances. His official spokesman later confirmed the thrust of Blair's line in his routine press conference.

He was then supported by Hilary Benn, the international development secretary, who said the rich world had a "moral imperative" to achieve trade justice. He called for an end to EU and non-EU agricultural subsidies in which rich nations give their farmers £154 billion a year - 10 times the amount given in aid to Africa.

Compared with the "vision" of relieving poverty in Africa, all the Conservatives could offer was a series of higly technical and uninspiring changes, including "the compulsory decoupling of the Single Farm Payment from all production across all member states, as it is in England; the scrapping of EU support for tobacco production; and a cutting of tariffs to the point where export subsidies can be rapidly phased out."

This was the brainchild of Oliver Letwin, heavily influenced by the farming lobby which, as always, has completely lost the plot.

Thus, rather than go for the high ground, Letwin's recommendations include: "restricting EU market intervention and support mechanisms for use only in the case of major external shocks." But, to keep the lobby happy, he wants to keep the single farm payments system until 2012, then "increasingly switching its funding through compulsory co-financing; and ensuring that longer term support for farming and rural communities focuses on improving the environment and local amenities."

All good, worthy stuff and it will undoubtedly play well in the farming press, but to the other 98 percent of the voting population, the game goes to Blair. Even if the Conservatives now attempt to play catch-up, by also supporting the abolition of the CAP, they will look as if they are reacting to Blair, rather than leading the agenda.

The Independent has been assiduous in making the case against the CAP, with an article today headed: "How the CAP helps our poorest farmers", pointing out that The Queen gained £545,897 from agricultural subsidies last year, the Duke of Westminister £448,472, the Duke of Bedford £365,801, the Prince of Wales £225,465 and the Duke of Northumberland £450,740.

Never mind that much of this money actually goes to the estate tenants – many of whom are far from wealthy – this is a propaganda war being waged, and one which plays well with the public.

The game started in earnest this weekend with a piece in The Sunday Telegraph, which conveyed an allegation from former agriculture commissioner Franz Fischler that Blair had "vetoed farm reform to benefit the Queen" and another in The Observer which claimed that, "Danish MPs get millions in farm subsidy", retailing that four Danish cabinet ministers, several of its MPs and "even the country's EU commissioner" receive payments under the CAP running into millions of pounds.

Never mind that what Blair plans cannot be achieved. It is no more or less achievable that the Conservative plans, so if you are going to play the rhetorical game, you might as well go for broke, which is precisely what Blair has done.

Moreover, it has the doubly-delicious effect of seriously upsetting the French, who have reacted with predictable hostility. According to the AFX agency, this morning Villepin completely ruled out negotiation on farm subsidies, saying: "We are prepared to discuss but not to negotiate on this issue". Instead, he said, "I think we should urgently deal with this issue (the EU budget)."

Another major beneficiary of the CAP, Ireland, has also weighed-in, supporting the subsidy regime, with the Irish Independent citing agriculture spokesman Denis Naughten claiming that abolishing the CAP "would put food production at the mercy of factory farms, hypermarkets and dodgy imports which cannot be safely scrutinised." All of this looks so much like special pleading – which indeed it is – that it cannot help but aid Blair's cause, especially if, as the Spanish paper El Pais records, the Spanish government is actually tilting towards the Blair agenda.

Altogether, by upping the ante, Blair has played a blinder, which is leaving the opposition, at home and abroad, floundering.