Last weekend I was chatting to a prominent Perthshire farmer about CAP reform and how much time I was spending writing about it.
“I realise that he said, but it is getting harder to understand . Can you not make it more simple?”
I have spent the intervening week thinking about it, and the answer is: “No, much as I would like to, I can’t.”
The days of simplicity are far in the past, and the whole process has gained a complexity that is almost surreal.
It did start out in quite a straightforward way, but that was five years ago. The plan was that by 2013 (a deadline now to be missed by two years) every EU member state would have moved away from paying subsidy tied to production either now or in the past. Historic payments linked to what a farm had produced in the years 2000-2002 would have to go, and be replaced by payments based only on the area farmed and calculated on a per-hectare basis.
‘Simples’, as that pesky meerkat might say. Just take the CAP allocation for each of the 28 member states, divide that by the number of hectares used for agricultural production, and there would be the payment rate.
It was never going to work that way, though. For some of the newer member states it would have meant a huge lift in their farm subsidies because they had started life in the EU at very low levels of support with the promise only of incremental increases over a long period, not a sudden destabilising bonanza.
Also and this is particularly relevant for Scotland not all agricultural land is of the same quality. A flat rate would mean poor quality land, of which there is plenty here and elsewhere, being vastly over-subsidised compared to the productive areas.
It is easy to see how it is becoming more complicated, isn’t it?
And then came the politics. The European Commission, fighting the battles of a decade previously when food security was barely an issue, wanted to see a CAP with a very ‘green’ tinge to it. Payments to farmers would only be made if certain rules were followed on crop diversity, and every farm would need to have designated environmental focus areas.
EU Farm Commissioner Dacian Ciolos moved on several issues over the five years of negotiations, but not on these ones. As soon as he had drawn these lines in the sand, everything became potentially much more difficult to implement.
Then the CAP budget was cut, putting everyone on red alert. Would there be enough to go around?
No, there wouldn’t.
Ciolos was by now fighting a desperate battle to avoid being the first farm commissioner to have failed to deliver a CAP. He had a mountain to climb because not only had he to convince the European Commission and the Council of Ministers to accept the plan but, thanks to the Lisbon Treaty, he also had to gain support from a European Parliament with newly-granted co-decision powers.
Against the odds he did actually manage to pull it off, and by last June the new CAP was signed off in principle with only the implementing rules to be completed.
The problem was that Commissioner Ciolos had only managed to pull off the deal by offering “flexibility” in the way the new policy would be implemented in each member state.
For the UK the flexibility went further, with one central government and three devolved administrations all having their own ideas.
The result, of course, is the complexity that we now face.
The UK Government, or more specifically Defra, is giving the Scottish Government the runaround. Mostly this is to do with pre-referendum politics but it also, one suspects, reflects Defra Secretary Owen Paterson’s antipathy to having a farm support regime at all.
The European Commission is meanwhile trying to regain ground lost to the European Parliament by tweaking the regulations.
The Parliament is reminding everyone that MEPs still have the power to pull the rug from under the whole policy.
And all this with only nine months to go before the new CAP becomes a reality.
NFU Scotland, meanwhile, has to make the most of it and try to please as many of its members as possible.
It is an unenviable task, with some farmers facing a huge reduction in Single Farm Payment.
Others, particularly new entrants, have little sympathy and want to be winners.
At the same time nearly everyone wants an end to ‘slipper farming’ by those who occupy large areas of land simply to gain subsidy.
Slipper farming is not the only piece of jargon to have entered the popular lexicon. We also have internal convergence, external convergence, the Irish tunnel, the Scottish clause, pillar one, the two-region model, the three- region model, coupled payments and loads more.
Simplicity, I am afraid, has gone forever.
Later today the NFUS will reveal its response to the Scottish Governments CAP consultation. Expect complexity!