For those who are fed up with the guff-filled platitudes of European diplomacy, there was something magnificent in the remarks of M. Chirac about British cuisine. Not since Edith Cresson said that most British men were poofters, or since a Scandinavian environment minister called John Selwyn Gummer a drittsekk, or scumbag, has there been so refreshing a breach of protocol. According to the French President, the British are not to be trusted, because their cooking is exceeded in filthiness only by Finland’s. He found haggis disgusting, and thinks that the British have contributed nothing to European agriculture except mad cow disease. This is not the time to quarrel with the substance of what he said, but to salute the spirit in which he said it.
He spoke with the fury of a man who probably knew that Paris was about to be pipped by London in its efforts to host the Olympics. He spoke with the uninhibited rancour of a man who has just been bamboozled by Tony Blair into holding a referendum on the European constitution, only to find the thing thrown out by his own people. In other words, he spoke from the heart, and that is what makes his remarks so appealing. It is time for others to repay the compliment, and speak frankly to Chirac about what he has done to Europe, and what France has done to European agriculture.
The introduction of a little more candour in international relations is much to be welcomed, not least because it will encourage other world leaders to hold Jacques Chirac to account for his real misdemeanour: putting the interests of the subsidy junkies who tend his nation’s farms above the cause of world poverty. Aside from Africa’s dictators, there is no one in the world who is proving such a barrier to African development as the French President. His refusal even to consider the role of agricultural subsidies and tariff barriers in the impoverishment of Africa, and for that matter the hindrance of economic growth in Europe, is a disgrace.
Last month the West agreed to write off $30 billion worth of African debt over the next 25 to 30 years. It was reported as a historic breakthrough, but the truth is that it is a pathetically small gesture when the EU annually spends a similar sum undermining African food producers with subsidies to European farmers. It is absurd that each European cow is costing European taxpayers $2.20 a day, more than the daily income of half the world’s population. If the EU subsidy regime was ended, if the tariff barriers which keep African food out of Europe were lifted, and if as a result just a fraction of the money European consumers now spend on subsidies was allowed to trickle through to African farmers, it would be a huge shot in the arm for the African economy.
We do not claim that free trade is the answer to all of Africa’s problems, many of which are political. It is possible that a too-hasty end to the export subsidies paid to European farmers could in the short term harm African consumers if it meant a sudden rise in food prices; it would of course take time for African agriculture to adjust to the opportunities offered by free trade. But there is no question at all that in the longer term Africa would have a huge amount to gain from being able to build a larger export industry in agriculture, in which it enjoys a comparative advantage over the West.
George W. Bush is often portrayed as the developed world’s great pariah, who misses no chance to snub the international negotiating table if he feels his national interest is at stake. But on the issue of trade it is Jacques Chirac who is the pariah. President Bush has indicated that he is willing to dismantle the American farm subsidy regime if Europe does the same. What is needed now is a positive response from Europe. Instead, the French President refuses to budge. Never mind global poverty, never mind the fact that the Common Agricultural Policy is costing the average European farmer £16 a week in taxes and higher food prices; no one is allowed so much as to challenge the birthright of les paysans to exist in a bubble entirely insulated from economic forces.
The absurdity of French agriculture, and the CAP in general, is ultimately unsustainable. Subsidies inevitably breed complacency. The French wine industry is faltering in spite of the billions of euros lavished upon it, as the world’s consumers realise that French wine is overpriced and isn’t as good as similarly priced bottles from more enterprising viticulturists in the New World. But there is a way in which Britons can and should help to speed up the end of the CAP: boycott French food. It is no great deprivation. Who needs overpriced Chablis when there are good, unsubsidised New Zealand whites on the market for a fiver a bottle? Who really wants to eat watery French apples, congealed duck fat in a pretty pot, or triangles of Brie which look and smell as if they have been formed beneath the armpit of a Frenchman?
The French President is entitled to his views on British nosh, and quite entitled to express them, if that is how he feels. And the rest of us are more than entitled to protest at the damage this crusty old dinosaur is doing to global development, and to take action to shun his country’s farmers until he promises reform.