Wednesday marks end of one battle in war over CAP

Don't shoot: Richard Lochhead's efforts may lead to him falling between two stools. Picture: Julie Bull
Don't shoot: Richard Lochhead's efforts may lead to him falling between two stools. Picture: Julie Bull
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I found myself wondering if the farming page should have a black border round it later this week when an announcement by the Scottish Parliament by rural affairs cabinet secretary, Richard Lochhead finally reveals the details of how the latest reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will be implemented in Scotland.

Farming journalists, columnists and commentators have travelled many weary miles in the company of this particular piece of legislation.

From its first mewlings when Scotland took an audacious lead on the road to reform – and the much-lauded Pack report seemed to inspire a vision of a new Europe in the eyes of the Brussels bureaucrats – deliberation and discussion have filled many column inches.

As the reforms passed through the concrete towers of Brussels and Strasbourg, where the reform process became a victim of the tussle between the parties in the new triumvirate decision-making process, it continued to supply endless copy of conjecture and supposition.

Even towards the middle of last year when, apparently against all the odds, the Irish presidency managed to thrash out a last-minute deal which member states seemed willing to at least sign up to, rumours associated with the more arcane points of the policy continued to grow on the home front.

Whether or not it is fair to say that a degree of political point-scoring with a careful eye on the Scottish independence debate, which was just getting into its stride, played a role in the escalation of intrigue will be for history to decide, but it certainly did not serve to reduce the associated commentary and growth of conspiracy theories.

So, we’ve gone from the early breaths when the reforms first saw rancourous disagreement between the European Commission and the European Parliament, through the UK government vs the rest attempts to have farm support measures severely curtailed, to the Holyrood vs Westminster battle over the allocation of the UK’s convergence uplift. Now we’re all the way up to the last-minute guerrilla actions being fought in our own hills and glens over rough grazing areas, stocking densities and the transition period, the reform has been steeped in combat and controversy.

And when a single topic is home to so much disputatious dissent, especially when it runs alongside the sort of complexity which even the best informed have often struggled to understand, there lies endless fodder – as well as endless dangers – for those in the reporting business.

But although the agricultural press’s charting of Scotland’s ignominious fall from policy trailblazer down to our current tail-end Charlie performance of being among the last in Europe to stagger towards the finishing line might have echoed strongly with our sporting writers, the reform process must have devoured more acres of newsprint than almost any other agricultural matter.

In truth, though, I strongly suspect that it’ll be a case of “reports of its death have been much exaggerated” and I doubt that Wednesday’s announcement will be the last we’ll hear on the issue of CAP reform.

For it probably marks little more than the start of new period of friction and discord as the implications for individual businesses start to become clear.

The dying days battle of “complexity versus deliverability” which flared up last week is still being fought – but by Wednesday a decision must be taken which will inevitably raise the ire of those on the losing side of any line drawn.

Cabinet secretary Lochhead has drawn criticism from some commentators for playing his hand close to his chest – but last week’s wave of frantic last-minute activity seems to have been prompted by his department disclosing some indication of the likely road to be taken.

The cynic in me wonders if it might be the old “scare the pants off them with the worst picture – then they’ll be relieved when it’s not as bad as it might have been” approach being adopted – but we’ll know soon enough.

There’s one thing’s for sure, though – and that is that no-one will get everything they want.

The deal struck in Europe meant that budgets would be tight and the very nature of change from historic to area-based payments is such a ground-breaking shift that to bring in the new policies without causing some seismic changes within the industry would be impossible.

So my guess is that there’s going to be quite few unhappy people out there whatever is announced – and that means plenty of column inches.