The war reminded Europe why it has a common agricultural policy
The EU celebrates 60 years of the Common Agricultural Policy. This anniversary could have passed without much comment, were it not for the problems facing Europe today that echo the conditions that led to the creation of the CAP in 1962.
The policy was for a simpler era of just the six founding member states of the then EEC. It was shaped by years of food shortages after World War II. Roll the clock back sixty years and Europe once again faces the fallout of a war on its doorstep and is threatened by a massive world power. Food security and affordability are back at the top of the agenda.
The CAP was created more than ten years before the United Kingdom joined the EEC. At the time, the UK had a system of compensatory payments and standard quantities. When prices fell, farmers were paid to close the gap from an agreed price for a set level of production. It was bureaucratic, but a sideshow because the British food industry was built around imports from the southern hemisphere and South America.
New Zealand Lamb and Dairy Products; beef from Uruguay and Argentina that transformed Fray Bentos from a Uruguayan port into a brand. This led to the growth of the Vestey operation and its Dewhurst Butchers chain as one of the world’s premier agricultural businesses. It also put the concept of cheap food at the center of British politics.
On the other hand, the CAP was based on the fight against food shortages with European production, the strengthening of food security and the guarantee of a fair income for farmers. This reflected a commitment made in the founding Treaty of Rome of the EEC to close the income gap between urban and rural areas. The CAP was not designed to be a cheap food policy. This was to maintain prices and restrict imports, making it the polar opposite of British policy.
The birth of the CAP was necessarily a farce. It was to be agreed by a certain date, but with an elusive final deal, the clocks were stopped until a deal could be struck. Its creation was driven by Germany and France and this dynamic remains the driving force, even today with 27 Member States. At first it was considered a success, in that it tackled the problems facing the EEC.
However, as the EEC became the EC and then the EU and the number of member states increased, the CAP became a victim of its own success. Shortages and lack of food security gave way to lakes of milk and mountains of beef, as politics failed to find ways to cope with the explosion of productivity science brought to the ‘agriculture. This in turn led to quotas as attempts were made to turn a production supertanker out of control. Europe ended up with a policy designed to address the problems of the 1950s in a very different world from the 1970s and 1980s.
It wasn’t until Irishman Ray MacSharry became agriculture commissioner and began to shape the direct payments CAP we know today that politics finally got back on track. Others before him failed, but partly because Ireland had done the CAP so well, he was ideally placed to be poacher-turned-gamekeeper. The MacSharry reforms, followed by those of Franz Fischler and Marian Fischer-Boel, saved the CAP from implosion on its excesses. As a result, the policy has successfully stood the test of time. Had the UK not joined the EEC, its deficiency payment structures would have suffered the same fate as agricultural productivity entered a new era.
Considering the CAP a success, Polish EU agricultural commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski highlighted what it has done for formerly communist-controlled countries that have moved from the CAP to modern, market-oriented agricultural economies . This was due to the CAP, but also to what the UK did then to encourage their escape from communism.
It’s a role the UK is still admired for, despite Brexit. All these factors explain why the EU felt that 60 years of the CAP deserved to be celebrated. He kept his original intentions, albeit too well for many years. It is still considered essential for ensuring food security and now as a means of combating climate change. The founding fathers of the CAP would be delighted if this policy remained the basis for a secure food supply in an uncertain world.