Europe and Central Asia
31 May 2018

Brexit and the future of food and farming

By Harriet Bradley

On the eve of the publication of the European Commission’s hotly anticipated – and debated – proposal on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) post-2020, our Agriculture Policy Officer Harriet Bradley looks across the Channel and assesses what impact Brexit may hold for the future of food and farming.

As many across the continent contemplate with regret the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, there is an unexpected irony in the world of agricultural policy that surprises. William Pitt, the Younger – England’s youngest Prime Minister – in his last speech (1805) reportedly made these prophetic remarks, “Let us hope that England, having saved herself…may save Europe by her example.” Whether or not England, and the rest of the UK, is saving or sinking herself with Brexit is a matter for another discussion entirely, but it is certainly safe to say that in the world of agricultural policy, England may indeed be setting the example.

Brexit creates the need for the UK to develop a future farming policies to replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).  And lo and behold, unlike the EU’s decision to stick with failed policies and exacerbate the decline of biodiversity and the deleterious environmental effects of intensive agriculture, Michael Gove, the relevant UK Minister (DEFRA), proposes to move away from direct payments to farmers, eventually phasing them out completely.[1] Gove argues that farmers and land managers should be paid largely for the public goods that agriculture and wider land management can provide, principally environmental enhancement. Unfortunately, these laudable political aspirations apply only in England as agriculture is a devolved competency in the UK. It also still remains to be seen how much environmental substance there will be inside the green-wrapped new policy direction.

"What seems to be clear however is that, at least in England, the era of direct payments will draw to a close. The reasons echo what NGOs have been saying for years."

What seems to be clear however is that, at least in England, the era of direct payments will draw to a close. The reasons echo what NGOs have been saying for years. Defra’s own paper is scathing on both direct payments (“poor value for money, untargeted and can undermine farmers’ ability to improve the profitability of their businesses”) and the CAP overall (“bad for farmers, taxpayers, consumers and the environment”).

These sentiments are part of an emerging consensus on the need for radical reform of the CAP. With the European Commission about to publish its reform proposals, however, the various signals, leaks and rumours appear to show farm policy in Europe going in the opposite direction. There is scant reassurance to anyone hoping that the CAP will play more of a part in reversing the devastating biodiversity declines the EU has witnessed in recent decades. The Commission is planning to safeguard direct payments, paid regardless of farming practices and mostly to a small number of large beneficiaries, so perpetuating many of the environmental and social problems in EU farming today.

We are profoundly concerned about the impact of the current CAP proposal on the credibility of the EU. The UK’s plans, at least Gove’s plans for England therein, for progressive reform, despite uncertainty remaining, make the EU look comparatively even more regressive. Ignoring citizens and caving instead to intensive farming interests is not a recipe for long term food security, healthy environment or popularity of the EU project.

Harriet Bradley – EU Agriculture & Bioenergy Policy Officer, BirdLife Europe & Central Asia


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