There are discussions and consultations underway about the future of Scottish agriculture after Brexit, but the broad consensus is that policy changes are needed now, Brexit or no-Brexit, states Michael Keating.
In the last Parliament, the UK Government introduced an Agriculture Bill to provide for England after Brexit. Wales and Northern Ireland joined in that bill, using it to set the outlines of their own policy. The Scottish Government declined, preferring to design its own policy, while also complaining that the Bill invaded some devolved competences. The new Agriculture Bill before the Scottish Parliament paves the way for the transition to a new system after Brexit, giving ministers powers to modify the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) regulations. Unlike the Westminster bill, however, it does not give much guidance on what a post-Brexit agriculture policy will look like. The idea is to stick with the existing CAP rules until the end of 2020 and then start the transition to a new system, to come in by 2024-25. That will require a wholly new Bill to give effect to the policy. In the meantime, farmers and the rural community will have to wait.
There are several reasons why it is difficult to design a new policy. The UK Government had promised to keep funding at present levels until the end of the Parliament, which was expected to be 2022. With the dissolution of Parliament, that commitment is now in doubt. There is a review on the distribution of agricultural spending under way but it has not yet been reported. We know only that there will be a specific fund for agriculture, not part of the block grant or the Barnett Formula.
The UK Agriculture Bill in the last Parliament has already announced the end of direct payments to farmers in England and Wales. This suggests that spending will fall, but we do not know how much will be available to the Scottish Government, which would like to keep the possibility of continuing direct payments. Details of the proposed Shared Prosperity Fund, which will replace EU cohesion funds, possibly including rural policy spending, are sparse.
There is a process under way for negotiating policy frameworks in agriculture, among the four nations of the UK, to replace the European frameworks. We still do not know what the content of these will be and how much scope Scotland will have to take its own decisions. The UK Agriculture Bill gives UK ministers the power to interpret World Trade Organization rules on subsidies although it has suggested that it may not use this power to restrain what Scotland currently does.
Future trade deals with the EU and third countries will also mean importing rules about standards and subsidies. This is a UK competence but it will affect Scotland directly.
There are also questions about how a new UK competition policy might affect agriculture which, under EU rules, has a partial exemption from competition rules in order to allow the subsidies.
Most importantly of all, we do not know if Scotland is going to remain in the EU or, if it leaves, how far it will try to shadow EU rather than UK regulations.
All this is true but the rural policy community is becoming restless about the lack of direction for future policy and the danger of being dragged along behind England. Scotland’s conditions are quite different. While agriculture in England is largely commercial and based on large farms, Scotland has a large number of small farmers and crofters dependent on support. Agriculture policy in England is based on production, with a new emphasis on the environment. As well as these, Scottish policy is also concerned with sustaining fragile communities and retaining population. There is also broader thinking about rural policy, linking agricultural production with sustainability, the environment and social considerations.
Whatever the outcome of the General Election, Brexit will not be ‘done’ by the end of January. A lengthy period of negotiating future relationships lies ahead. There is a broad consensus in Scotland that the old model of agricultural support needs to change, Brexit or no Brexit. There are discussions and consultations under way about the future for Scottish agriculture but at some point difficult decisions will have to be taken and priorities set.