Opinion: None the wiser on post-EU farm support

To the Farmers Club in Whitehall to hear farms minister at Defra (and famous Eurosceptic) George Eustice deliver a talk.

As recently as February, Mr Eustice was promising the NFU AGM that an annual £18bn “Brexit dividend” would “without a shadow of a doubt” mean UK farmers would continue to receive the subsidies currently paid by the EU. 

Now, of course, he is saying something radically different: that leaving the EU is an opportunity to move to a “totally different way of supporting farming”, such as a “system where you help farmers manage risk”.

In response to a question about “subsidies”, Mr Eustice went pale at the mere mention of the word, which he described dismissively as “a misnomer”.

Payment by reward?

Apparently, if you want farmers to look after the environment you don’t “subsidise” them, but “reward” them. 

Good farm policies, apparently, are not rooted in “subsidy” but in “competitiveness”, where “centres of excellence” encourage “knowledge transfer” to farmers. 

To be a little more specific, the minister quoted the “McCain potato operation”, which he feels is something wonderful to behold as it even involves lending farmers “specialist machinery”.

Whether these machines are the ones that put the smiles on McCain’s happy faces shaped from fluffy mashed potato he didn’t say, but I didn’t spot a single smile on the faces of his audience.

The minister tried to reassure us that negotiations between the UK and EU for a post-Brexit free-trade agreement would be a “two-way street”. 

Apparently the EU would be just as keen to continue to send us their produce as we are to send them ours (including the 40% of UK lamb production which he described as being “dependent on the French and Belgian markets”).

But farmers bleating on about a level playing field with the rest of the EU was now old hat because what Brexit offered was a “competitive advantage”.

I can’t think I was the only one in the room who wondered what “competitive advantage” I would have over my EU farming counterparts if they are still in receipt of the BPS after 2020 and I am not.

But, hey ho, let’s not quibble about trivialities like the disappearance of a £2.4bn subsidy pot on which most of us depend for all of our income because Mr Eustice was looking forward to the “Great Repeal Bill”.

On the day that it is passed the UK will jettison en masse all those ghastly EU regulations and laws that have been holding me back. Then, I will be free to become a free-trade world-beater.  

Fair hearing pledge

In response to a question on trade, Mr Eustice informed us that Defra personnel “would be present” at international trade talks so that agriculture got a fair hearing when, say, Britain was concluding a bilateral trade deal with China. 

Better still, an exciting new department for “Exiting the EU” had already been formed. This was to be made up of a “talented group of people” drawn from across Whitehall.  

I could barely contain my excitement at the thought of all those brilliant mandarins who devised the government’s catastrophic “digital-only” SFP claims system or who have overseen the shambles at the RPA for the past 10 years now leaping into action to decide my future.

As the meeting ended, the chairman thanked the minister for his short speech and long Q&A session, which, he claimed, showed Mr Eustice had a good command of his brief. Maybe.

Or is it the case that, like so much about Brexit and the Westminster government, Mr Eustice is just making it all up as he goes along?