Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1037-1039)




  1037. Secretary of State, Lord Whitty, Mr Lebrecht, welcome. This is the final formal session in our inquiry into Farming without Subsidies?, and it is really the question mark I want to start with. Six months ago we were in a terribly Wordsworthian mood, so glorious was it that day to be alive, etc, etc. Six months down the road we have a Farm Bill which has been signed into law in the United States, we have President Chirac re-elected in France on a platform, amongst others, of the only thing with the CAP is that there is not enough of it; you have the Social Democrats in Germany, and so your pal, if I may say so, Secretary of State, Renate Künast is looking a bit dodgy for the continuation of her career, ten points behind the Christian Democrats led by a Bavarian—and German agricultural policy has traditionally been led by a Bavarian. Are you beginning to feel that all the stuff about liberalisation of agricultural trade and CAP reform is all beginning to wave in the wind a bit?

  (Margaret Beckett) I think I almost certainly said to you on the first occasion that I was before this Committee that people had been talking about CAP reform for all my political life, and I am very conscious of the fact that these things come and go. If you mean have I given up, no—for two reasons: one is because the realities—the EU realities and the world realities—remain with very, very substantial reason why we should pursue reform, and, also, because although you are quite right in identifying that we have an uncertain situation in France at the moment and that there are, as you again rightly identify, uncertainties elsewhere in Europe, the figures, the numbers and the costs have not changed. I think those are the things which are the key ingredients. We have never, ever said that we are certain of success; all we have said is that we are in a time period when we probably have the best chance of substantial reform for many years, and very probably for many years hence. That remains my view.

  1038. When we discussed this last we were talking about a mid-term review of the CAP, and Mr Fischler was talking about being more ambitious rather than modest in what he is hoping to do in that mid-term review. We are awaiting his proposals before the summer. We were talking about an agreement at Doha to try and put together the modalities, by which we agree was actually meant the details—not just the outlines—of the farm package of the WTO by, I think, a year from now. Do you feel that either of these deadlines, and in particular the latter deadline, is now threatened? What are the chances of those deadlines being met?
  (Margaret Beckett) I do not think, in particular, Doha is threatened. If that were the end-date of the negotiations then I would say that obviously makes it more uncertain, but because it is the starting date I do not think it makes it more uncertain. Also, Commissioner Fischler is looking towards these things, as the rest of us are, but I have heard him say, quite recently, that one of the reasons that the Uruguay round was not good for the European Union was because the European Union went into the Uruguay round simply wishing to defend the ground that it held and not wishing to approach radical change, and that that was a mistake that we would do well not to repeat at Doha. I accept your point—indeed, I have had this conversation on a couple of occasions with members of the United States' administration, including the Secretary for Agriculture—about the US Farm Bill. The administration has made it very clear to us and, indeed, they have made similar remarks publicly that this is not the Farm Bill that they would have chosen. I know there are those who say "In that case, President Bush should not have signed it" but that seems to me to be wholly against the facts of life in an election year in the United States in a way that you cannot expect any sensible politician to do. However, it still remains the case that the US has grounds on OECD figures for arguing that the European Union subsidises its farming industry to a greater extent than does the United States, and the administration are adamant that it has changed neither its approach nor its determination to pursue reform in the context of the World Trade Organisation talks and of the framework agreement reached at Doha. So a lot of the underlying realities have not changed. We may find a different set of politicians having to grapple with them from the EU side, but as I said the realities and the numbers are still there.

  1039. It is generally accepted that the numbers in the US Farm Bill still keep it below the WTO thresholds, but if we are going to remain optimistic we have to be willing to believe that six months after the congressional elections for which the Farm Bill was produced—if one believes the theory of political determinism—the United States is going to be willing to start negotiating away some of the support it has just put in place, on the face of what may still be a very weak commodity market, which I think is one of the things which has stimulated this package. Do you think that is plausible? In your private conversations with your American opposite number, what do you tell her about how helpful this is?
  (Margaret Beckett) Just what the Committee would expect me to tell her, Mr Curry. I made it plain not only that this was extremely disappointing—and she herself was very disappointed—but that it was extraordinarily unhelpful to the prospects for reform since everyone who is unenthusiastic about, or indeed outright opposed to, reform, whether it is the CAP or any other agricultural structures, would be using this as ammunition. The American administration understand that very well. All I can say to you is that they remain adamant that their purpose is unchanged.

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