Ross Clark

Banned Wagon | 28 June 2003

A weekly survey of world restrictions on freedom and free trade

Text settings

The opportunity to applaud French farmers comes along once a century at most, so an overpriced, oversubsidised champagne must be in order. As I write, France is on the point of scuppering talks on reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), thanks to lobbying from its dairy and cereal farmers. This is entirely predictable and might not be seen as much of a cause for celebration – until one examines the proposed reforms.

It isn't easy to conceive of a more absurd system than CAP, which consumes half the EU's annual budget subsidising the production of food which European consumers do not want and which ends up being sold cheaply to the Third World, thus undermining their own agriculture. But the European agriculture commissioner Franz Fischler has managed it nonetheless. Under his proposals, European taxpayers would end up paying as much to farmers as they do now. The difference is that they wouldn't be paying farmers to produce food. They would be paying farmers to do sod all.

In order to qualify for your subsidy cheque under the new system, you would merely have to keep your land in 'agricultural condition' and obey standards of 'environmental and food safety'. In other words, all you have to do is to give a few sheep a home and keep them happy. No wonder large numbers of former bankers have been buying up farms in recent months: who needs the City when a life of taxpayer-funded idleness beckons? Payments would be redirected from large farms to small, ensuring that the agricultural sector becomes even more of a heritage industry than it is at present.

French farmers are not noted for their support of the free market, but by blocking Herr Fischler's package they might speed the case for the only reform which makes any sense: complete abolition of the CAP. Europe's yokels can either give up or do what New Zealand's did when their subsidies were abolished: take up the challenge and prosper.