Though the UK Government seems intent on devolving more powers to the governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, one thing that it cannot devolve is membership of the European Union. It continues to be a source of resentment that the ministers in the devolved governments have no direct voice in Brussels, though they will, no doubt, be glad that the EU has adopted an innovative, if rather convoluted, approach to the long running saga of the ban on growing GM crops in Europe, which will allow different policies to be adopted in Scotland and Wales.
It has been apparent for years that there was no chance of the 28 EU member states reaching an agreement to permit the growing of GM crops. At last the Commission and Parliament have approved a proposal that GM crops should be permitted but member states may decide otherwise. Evidently the opt outs can be made on a regional basis, so Scotland and Wales, as EU Regions, can decide, as they apparently intend, that GM crops should not be grown, and England that they should be.
The lack of uniformity in the UK over GM will be mirrored for a while in the administration of the reformed Common Agricultural Policy. Despite having five years to make appropriate arrangements, the Welsh Government has failed to formulate an acceptable scheme for apportioning EU Basic Payments between lowland, upland and moorland farmers; it has had to withdraw its proposals after a challenge in court by moorland farmers, an embarrassing step which will only add to the difficulty it has already admitted in making timely payments to farmers next year.
It has also had to postpone the introduction of regulations for the electronic tagging of sheep, which is now compulsory for sheep going to slaughter in England; if Welsh farmers wish to sell in English markets, they will have to tag.
The Scottish Secretary for Rural Affairs, Richard Lochhead, also has concerns of a different kind about uniformity. He has been complaining that, if the UK were to decide to leave the EU, the £20bn which UK farmers are due to receive in EU Basic Payments in 2015-2020 will be put in jeopardy – no mention, we note, of the SNP’s claims in the independence campaign that Scotland would remain a member of the EU in its own right. The Secretary of State, Liz Truss, when pressed at the Oxford Farming Conference, refused to say what the UK Government would do about the level of payments, on the grounds that it was hypothetical and the preferred option was to remain a member of the EU.
How dairy farmers must wish that they had the comfort of Basic Payments like arable and livestock farmers. It is ironic that the abolition of EU milk quotas, designed to limit production, should coincide with a collapse in the market for EU dairy products, due in part to lack of demand, for differing reasons, from China and Russia.