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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 10/10/2004)


Fischler's poison pill has Mr Flux flummoxed
No way to win the nation's trust
A plan that will make us all nuts
Roots still count when you're six feet under

Fischler's poison pill has Mr Flux flummoxed

When Colin Flux, who farms on the Suffolk-Essex border, recently received details of the new "Single Farm Payment" scheme for paying agricultural subsidies he received a shock. He holds 300 acres of his farm, which he has been farming for 15 years, under a tenancy. And under the new EU rules, which use land area rather than yield as the basis for subsidies, the chief beneficiary will now be the owner of the land, because until 2002 Mr Flux only farmed it under contract.

So the owner of the 300 acres, now retired, will receive 26,000 in the first year, and 100,000 over seven years; while Mr Flux, doing all the work, will get just 2,400 a year. He finds this so odd that he wrote about his plight to his MP; to ministers such as the Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett, and the ministry's spokesman in the Lords, Lord Whitty; to the shadow agriculture spokesman, Tim Yeo; and to several others. Most did not reply, and none could explain how such a situation might have arisen.

What Mr Flux did not realise was that he is only a pawn in a much larger game, involving what has come to be known as "Franz Fischler's poison pill". For years the EU's common agricultural policy (CAP) has been one of its biggest headaches, accounting for nearly half of its budget, easily the largest single component in its expenditure. Furthermore Brussels has for years been trying to find ways to curb the surpluses created by subsidising food production. Much of this surplus is dumped on the world market, inflicting severe damage on the economies of poorer countries which are unable to compete with agricultural produce that is cheap only because it has been subsidised by EU taxpayers.

With the approach of "EU enlargement", the need to curb the agriculture budget became more urgent than ever. But any attempt to cut farm subsidies would be blocked, not least by its main beneficiary, France. So Franz Fischler, the EU's agriculture commissioner, came up with a cunning plan.

Instead of subsidising production, he would simply make payments to farmers based on how much land they occupied. They would no longer have to produce anything, but would receive their money regardless, so long as they "cross-complied" with 18 directives on such matters as affording protection to wildlife and animal welfare.

The appeal of this system was that it would seem wonderfully "environmental", would reduce surpluses and would comply with World Trade Organisation rules against subsidising production. Yet, because it would not reduce the overall level of subsidies, the farmers would not complain. They would in effect be paid for doing, if not nothing, then at least much less.

Herein, however, lay Fischler's real cunning. He knew that when the penny began to drop that farmers were no longer being paid to produce cheap food, there would be outrage at the whole system. Why should farmers be subsidised at all, when the original justification for those subsidies had been removed? The CAP would become indefensible and it would be possible to slash the entire budget, freeing billions of euros a year for other purposes.

It is Mr Flux's misfortune to be an early victim of Fischler's "poison pill". He is expected to farm virtually without subsidies, but to sell his produce in a market where his competitors are still subsidised. But eventually, when that pill has done its work, we shall see it being argued that his competitors should lose most of their subsidies as well. At present, Mr Flux may not see that as much consolation.

No way to win the nation's trust

Michael Howard says that above all he wants to be trusted. There can be no better test of this than his policy on "Europe". He has said that he intends to oppose the EU constitution and the euro, and to repatriate powers already handed over to Brussels, notably control of our fisheries.

When challenged on how he will persuade our EU partners to agree to these demands, Mr Howard and his followers (for example, David Cameron MP, on last Thursday's Question Time) like to cite the precedent of Mrs Thatcher's triumph in 1984 over the UK's budget rebate.

Furthermore, Mr Howard says, if the rest of the EU wishes to continue integrating, he will offer a quid pro quo. So long as powers are repatriated to Britain, he won't use his veto to stop them.

On both these points his claims are misleading. First, when Mrs Thatcher won her rebate, she held a trump card. The EC, then on the verge of bankruptcy, desperately needed an increase in its budget, which she was in a position to block unless she got her way on the rebate.

Second, under the "enhanced co-operation" clauses of the Amsterdam and Nice treaties, agreed to by Tony Blair, Britain no longer has the power to veto further integration if other countries want it.

And, anyway, what Mr Howard is proposing is a direct challenge to the most sacred principle of the EU, the so-called acquis communautaire, which lays down that once a power has been ceded (as over fisheries) it can never be given back.

So when it comes to putting his new "get tough" policy into action, Mr Howard not only has no trumps in his hand, he has no cards at all. His entire policy rests on bluff. And while this brave talk may fool the British electorate, it hardly seems the best demonstration of his trustworthiness.

A plan that will make us all nuts

Conkers are not the only nuts that might cause us to wonder at the absurdities thrown up by the ever-extending tentacles of bureaucracy in British life. Take, for instance, EC Regulation 1059/2003, on "the establishment of a common classification of territorial units for statistics" - in French, Nomenclature commune des unites territoriales statistiques, or "Nuts". This lays down how, for statistical purposes, the whole of the EU must be divided up into regions (Nuts 1), sub-regions (Nuts 2) and sub-sub-regions (Nuts 3), each with its own code number.

Obviously this principle has not properly been grasped by the South-East Regional Assembly, which dutifully agreed, at a recent "plenary" session, that dividing up south-east England into sub-regions was a top priority, and that these should be given such cosy names as "Kent Thames Gateway", "London Fringe" and "Western Corridor and Blackwater Valley".

But the assembly has come up with nine sub-regions for our South-East Euro-region, whereas the official classification set out in the annex to 1059/2003 makes clear that this "Nuts 1 unit" should include only four sub-regions, divided into 14 "Nuts 3" sub-sub-regions.

If the bureaucrats wish to redraw the map of England, could they at least agree on how many pieces we are to be divided up into? Otherwise someone who lives in "Western Corridor" (formerly parts of Berkshire and Oxfordshire) won't know whether they are in UKJ11 or UKJ14, which could make them seriously unhappy.

Roots still count when you're six feet under

Conwy council in North Wales has sent undertakers a form to be completed when someone is buried, with tick-boxes to show the ethnic origin of the departed. The form categorises corpses in some puzzling ways. "White", for example, includes the sub-species British, Irish, Welsh and "other", but not English or Scottish. And it is hard to tell whether "Asian" - since it excludes Chinese, which is a separate category - is intended to cover, say, Japanese, or Saudi, or someone like my late mother-in-law, born in Vladivostok.

Graham Roberts, a Conwy funeral director (and a regular reader of this column), protested to the local paper: "It's a barmy world where we have to justify our origin before we can be buried in the common earth of our country."

This provoked the council to respond: "We have to do this to make sure our services do not overlook or exclude any groups, and that we serve everyone equally well, irrespective of race, colour, nationality or ethnic or national background. To do this we need to know who is using our services."

Certainly this belief that the council's services are being "used" by the deceased gives new meaning to the notion that the state must look after us from the cradle to the grave.