20 July 2001


As the machinations

of the growing number

of EU officials becomes

increasingly complex,

less importance is

being devoted to

member states

agriculture industries

They do it differently today, but when Britain joined the Common Market in 1973 agricultural policies and prices were agreed by the Council of Agriculture Ministers each spring. In those days, I often found myself in Brussels for these annual shindigs, which often lasted all night. With a bunch of other insomniacs from Britain and other member states, whose multiple languages added to the confusion, I tried to interpret and report the latest package to farmers back home.

It was usually chaotic. Ministers from one country or another, and sometimes EC officials, would constantly come down from their chamber and offices on the 13th floor to brief reporters in the ground-floor Press café which was littered with the detritus of journalism and media. To begin with, the decision-makers would state their immovable positions on key policies. But by the middle of the night, or the night after that, with red eyes and tired voices, they would explain the concessions they had made were a victory for farmers and common sense.

I remember then using phrases like "this tower of Babel" and "can this be the way to run Europe?" But in spite of my reservations on how it was done, I believed then and I believe now that it is logical and inevitable that Britain should work with the rest of Europe.

The world is getting smaller in trading and security terms. We have more in common with Europe than the US. And there ought to be a way of uniting contiguous nations. I still hold that view, although I admit that a trip round some of my old haunts last week tested my resolve.

I joined a party arranged by the Farmers Club which visited the European Parliament as well as COPA and NFU offices. It quickly became clear that the addition of more countries since I was a regular visitor to what is now styled the EU had made matters much more complicated. It began with six members, increased to nine when Britain, Denmark and Ireland joined, then grew to 12 and now 15 member states.

Interpretation, which was always a major problem accounting for one-third of EU staff, is in danger of swamping the administration. To some of us in the Farmers Club party, understanding what was happening felt a bit like swimming through slurry. And 12 more nations have applied for membership. They wont all be allowed in at once, some may not be allowed in at all, but the majority will eventually become members, adding still more to communications difficulties.

But the even bigger problem facing the EU is that whereas everybody wants the union to expand to bring in the applicant countries, most of which are middle Europeans, nobody wants to pay the cost. Aspirants may say their main interest is in the security of being associated with a powerful group of countries, but they also expect their domestic farm prices, among other things, to rise and be guaranteed as in the existing EU. And although every MEP, EU official and farmers representative we spoke to recognised the problem, none had any solutions.

One farmer MEP told us that earlier the same day he had tried to promote a debate in the Agriculture Committee of the European Parliament on the growing crisis in agriculture. He repeated some of the arguments he had put and we were satisfied with the points he made. But he had apparently been told by other members of the committee, not of his political persuasion, that he was talking nonsense. The committee went on to spend the morning discussing honey.

Faced with UK political disinterest and/or lack of understanding of agricultural issues, our party had hoped the situation in Europe might be better. Perhaps we were too quick to criticise on the basis of limited experience, but we left Brussels feeling depressed. Agriculture is clearly not as important there, or here, as it used to be. Rural Development is the theme today, in Europe as in Britain, and farmers may, or may not, have a part to play in it.

The last official we spoke to was Corrado Pirzio-Biroli, the senior civil servant to farm commissioner Franz Fischler. He confirmed much of what we had already heard. He also, indiscreetly but unsurprisingly, told us that the Treasury ministers and the foreign ministers of member states are our biggest enemies. No Treasury minister wants to spend more on farming and every foreign minister wants to promote free trade. Furthermore, the majority for the CAP within the commission had vanished.

But he conceded that in his view there was still need for a significant production agriculture. Which was about the only time we heard such a statement all day. A faint glimmer of hope there, perhaps. However, he made no bones about his view that farming organisations across Europe were less effective than they were and than they should be. And that at a time when our industry is facing greater threats than ever before. More effective farmer representation is clearly urgent and overdue.

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