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Private Eye

Muckspreader 15 December 2004

For sheer ingenuity you have to hand it to those officials who sit in Brussels dreaming up new regulations for the farming community. Their latest stroke of genius is to ban farmers from taking tractors onto their fields when it is raining. If there are puddles of water anywhere on a field more than 20 metres from the gate, it will be an offence to enter the field with any machinery. Thus in a wet spring, it could become illegal to plough or sow any field for weeks on end. In a wet summer, such as the one we have just had, it could become an offence to harvest crops until they are beyond saving.

So outraged by this new rule is Jim Hosking, a well-known Cornish farmer, that he has sent a letter to farming minister Lord Whittty describing it as “farcical, unethical and unacceptable”. The claimed purpose of the new EU rule is “to protect the soil”. But Mr Hosking calls it “a gross and disgraceful affront to the knowledge, skills and judgement of farmers." “Your support for such utter nonsense”, he tells Lord Whitty, “clearly shows that you have little regard for the basic principles of farming”.

When the rule was first announced, Lord Whitty insisted it was not a case of "bureaucracy gone mad". It was essential to ensure that “the farmer operates in a way that gets the support of society as a whole, and does the basic job of keeping the land in good condition." But Mr Hosking, in his puzzlement, has perhaps failed to appreciate its true purpose.

The real explanation for this idiotic rule can be seen from the context in which it is being introduced. It is part of the elaborate system of rules which surround the EU’s new ‘single farm payment’ scheme. The central principle is that farmers should no longer be paid to produce food, but only on the basis of how much land they farm. But they will only be given these subsidies so long as they can show they have complied with a mass of new ‘cross-compliance’ conditions, such as the ban on using tractors in wet fields. The penalty for breaking any rule is that you lose all your subsidies.

The hidden agenda behind this new system (known, after the EU commissioner who devised it, as ‘Fischler’s poison pill’) is that the EU is desperate to find ways to slash its £30 billion a year agricultural subsidy bill, still the largest item in the EU’s budget. The trick is first to make farming subsidies even more unpopular by withdrawing subsidies from food production, so that people will ask why farmers are paid so much money just for doing nothing. Second, you tell farmers that, unless they comply with all the legislation, their subsidies will be withdrawn. Thirdly, you then dream up all sorts of ridiculous new rules, which it will be impossible for them to comply with. You then have a perfect excuse for not paying them a penny! Finally, throw in the incentive that national governments are allowed to keep 25 percent of all the money they save in this way (the rest going back to Brussels) and you will see why Lord Whitty and his colleagues are so keen on this brilliant new system, and why they will defend even something as daft as prohibiting farmers from using their tractors when it is raining.