The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy was frequently criticised by British politicians during the UK’s membership of the EU. But to what extent has the UK developed a distinct agricultural policy since Brexit? Wyn Grant and Alan Greer find that processes of de-Europeanisation in the British agricultural sector have been uneven following the UK’s exit, with significant divergence in some areas and continuity in others.
Throughout Britain’s membership of the European Union, agricultural policy was largely determined by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This was seen, particularly by the Treasury, as a dysfunctional policy that absorbed an excessive share of the EU budget, transferred taxpayer funds to larger farmers and encouraged intensive forms of agriculture that were environmentally damaging. Periodic reforms meant that the CAP moved in the direction advocated by the UK, for example by reducing the budget share, removing subsidies that incentivised overproduction and introducing some ‘greening’ of policy. However, the main policy elements remained in place.
While there are political pressures that underpin a preference to ‘do things differently’ outside the EU and develop distinctive UK policies, there are three countervailing factors that discourage too great a move away from the CAP. UK farmers need to compete with EU farmers who still receive relatively high payments under the CAP; there is a need to continue to export agrifood products to the EU, although their value has diminished substantially since Brexit; and developing new policy instruments to replace those used in the CAP is costly and difficult and has proceeded slowly.
Devolution and agriculture
With agriculture an important devolved competence in the UK, there are important differences in approaches and policy outlooks between the territorial administrations. The overall budget for agricultural support in the UK will decline, particularly after account is taken of the effects of inflation. The devolved territories argued strongly that Brexit should not mean any reduction in funding for the agrifood sector. International trade is, however, a UK issue and trade agreements concluded with, for example, Australia and New Zealand have been seen as damaging for domestic agriculture.
The divergences in outlooks and policy approaches between the devolved administrations in part reflect differences in the way they farm, but also fundamental differences about Brexit itself. Majorities in England and Wales voted to leave while there was clear support in Scotland and Northern Ireland for remaining in the EU. The approach in Scotland for example has been shaped by the preference of the governing SNP for an independent Scotland rejoining the EU.
In England, Defra developed its Environmental Land Management Programme (ELMS) as the focus of future policy based around public goods payments. The basic payment made to farmers under CAP had few conditions attached and was an assured source of income. Public goods payments will be smaller in aggregate and will have more conditions attached and higher transaction costs in terms of application procedures.
The three core elements of Scottish Government policy are high quality food production, environmental sustainability and nature restoration, and climate change mitigation and adaptation. Direct payments will continue but will be subject to more environmental conditions. The Welsh Government is not prepared to provide a universal basic support measure, resisting demands from farmer groups that food production should be treated as a public good.
In Northern Ireland, policy developments suggest a continuing focus on food production with relatively less emphasis on the environment and tackling climate change. Future policy will also be fundamentally influenced by the Protocol under which EU law continues to apply. This covers a wide range of areas such as animal health and welfare and pesticides regulation.
Crucially under Article 13(3) of the Protocol, policy will be subject to ‘dynamic alignment’ in which future changes to EU laws will automatically apply in Northern Ireland. As regulatory divergence between the UK and the EU increases, there may be increasingly substantial divergence on agricultural regulation between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Overall, the picture in terms of continuity and divergence is mixed, with rhetoric about ‘new approaches’ sitting alongside continuity with the CAP, especially in terms of policy visions and the debate about ideas. In England there are political motivations to exaggerate the extent of change, in Scotland there are tensions between using devolution to do things differently and remaining aligned with the CAP.
Continuity after Brexit
Many of the issues on the agricultural policy agenda have been carried over from the CAP, and there are striking similarities in content between the UK and EU agendas, such as in relation to payment for the provision of public goods including environmental sustainability and reduction of the carbon footprint of agriculture. For both the UK and EU, climate change must be an increasingly important imperative that drives policy choices, although many of the difficult issues relating to greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture have yet to be tackled.
England and Wales have gone farthest away from the CAP in phasing out direct payments to farmers. Scotland and Northern Ireland, on the other hand, intend to retain some form of direct payment. On regulation, there are interesting differences and while Scotland wants to remain close to the EU, the other territories have stressed developing a new approach.
So far, the extent of policy change promised by supporters of Brexit has not been matched by policy innovation, but the final phase of policy remains to be developed. Brexit has led to some further erosion of agriculture as a very distinctive policy sector that requires special and privileged treatment.
However, there has not been a switch to a neoliberal model in which returns are secured from the market, which some versions of Brexit would imply. There is an underlying and unresolved tension between a Brexit that embodies a neoconservative protectionism that limits the exposure of farmers to world markets and neoliberalism based on deregulation and the elimination of trade barriers.
For more information, see the authors’ accompanying paper in the Journal of European Public Policy