Comment: Errors of commission rather than errors of omission?

What goes on in the Berlaymont building upsets some MEPs. Picture: AFP
What goes on in the Berlaymont building upsets some MEPs. Picture: AFP
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THE Berlaymont building dominates the Brussels skyline just as those working within it dominate much of life in Europe.

This is, after all, the central building for the 23,000 employees of the European Commission.

Part of the current workload of the commission is translating the political desires of Europe into the working framework of the forthcoming common agricultural policy (CAP).

For those not familiar with the decision-making route in Brussels, the mantra is “the commission proposes, the European Parliament and European Council dispose prior to the commission imposing the policies.”

The commission officials, working back and forward with civil servants in the 28 member states, are now working in the final phase of that process and that is where problems appear to be cropping up.

On a 24 hour press trip to Brussels last week, journalists were given an insight into this part of the process. Over breakfast, George Lyon, one of Scotland’s MEPs, confirmed that one of the main tasks he and his parliamentary colleagues faced in the coming months was a need to keep an eye on the translation of the politicians’ wishes into the operational technical framework.

Innocently we had believed that the desires of the elected members would automatically be translated into reality by the European civil servants.

Hardly had we digested our breakfast and the need to be wary on the emerging details of the next CAP than we found a live example with a view emerging from the policy writers that the “Scottish clause” would not feature on the final document.

For those who have not been paying attention, “the Scottish clause”, which insists that only active farmers are subsidised, has been on the agenda since Brian Pack prepared a paper on CAP reform two years ago. His paper highlighted the leakage of cash to those farmers who had pensioned off their working wellies and were sitting by the fireside in their slippers quietly counting the amount of public money they continued to get.

Pack reckoned this was an unnecessary drain on funds that were given primarily to support farming. Now it appears that the proposal to only pay active farmers keeping livestock is dodgy in that this might contravene the World Trade Organisation principles that frown on the linkage between food production and subsidy.

For me, the strange part is that, during the months and months of CAP negotiations that have filled the European timetable, the “Scottish clause” was always on the agenda and yet no-one saw fit to raise a question mark over whether it was legitimate or not. Even now, its legitimacy or otherwise cannot be officially attributed as the technical draftsmen and women working on the details of the next CAP prefer anonymity. But take my word for it, they are not going to let it through.

It remains to be seen what happens next on this issue but it is causing heads to be scratched as to how to ensure those getting money from the public purse are actually doing something to deserve it.

The bigger problem for the next CAP, with its multitude of aims and its devolved nature allowing member states options on implementation, is that there are issues of interpretation of the decision made in June by the politicians.

All but five of the member states have expressed their concern over the commission staff making small but significant changes to their political desires. The officials are accused of “toughening them up” by the politicians and it points to a possible basic flaw in the decision-making system because, if you remember, “the commission proposes etc”, theoretically, there may be a tendency to shift back to the original script. But then there could also be a concern the current carfuffle is because the politicians are not liking what they have agreed to and are belatedly trying to recover their position.

The other decision which has caused a fuss is the one made by UK Secretary of State Owen Paterson on the share of the CAP cash. With Scotland getting less than the other parts of the UK and less than expected, it has generated a head of steam, fuelled in part by those wishing for a “yes” vote next year.

Scottish farming and political leaders face an uphill task in sorting this situation but their chances of success will depend more on rational argument than flag waving.