Skip to main content

The EU is still the answer, but the questions are changing

The effectiveness of the European Union (EU) as a trade and arbitration body can probably BE BEST UNDERSTOOD by examining the experience of Britain, writes Pat McCormack, president of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association

You often don’t know the value of something until you don’t have it. I’d say many British farmers and businesspeople now better understand the value of free trade and free movement than they did on June 22, 2016. Those who criticised membership of the European Economic Community (EEC), now the EU, must deal with the facts. Brexit has not been positive for the British economy. Efforts to reintegrate themselves into a global trading network and conclude any number of complicated trade agreements are proving difficult. The negotiating power that comes with membership of the single most-valuable consumer market on the planet has been lost.

Economic interdependency

The EU works economically. But it’s important – particularly considering events in Ukraine – to remember that it was not just economics that provided the initial impetus to an economic union. The EEC and the EU were founded on a momentous political realisation that if Europe’s different states are economically interdependent, then it is impossible for them to go to war with each other. That was the original inspiration – that Germany and France must be economically tied to each other in a way that removes the economic cause and capacity to wage war on each other. That realisation – and the determination to make it a reality – is the real glory of the EEC and the EU. It goes far beyond trade and it’s worth remembering that founding motive when we see what happens when tyrants consider themselves to be free of the obligations of union and interdependence.

CAP – not perfect

As farmers, our most direct and meaningful experience with the EU was, and is, through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the supports it offered. Is it perfect? No. Was it used as a Trojan Horse to introduce a ‘cheap food’ policy that enriched corporate retailers and wiped out traditional farmer margins? Yes, it was. Did that steady erosion of farmer margin force farmers to make up in volume production what they had lost on margin? Yes, it did. And so, has CAP’s facilitation of ‘cheap food’ and its emphasis on supplying ever greater volumes at ever lower prices contributed to current environmental stress? We must answer that we think it has.

But CAP is still the best method for regulating the supply of high quality, sustainable food to Europe’s populace. The ICMSA understands that, and we’ll always contribute to debates around CAP in that knowledge. What we don’t want – and unfortunately, what we are increasingly having to deal with – is the delusion that CAP can have a dual-purpose as an instrument for climate-change mitigation and other environmental issues. We believe that’s a mistake and that retrofitting a policy aimed at providing food to consumers at affordable prices into a policy that continues trying to do that, while also effecting environmental change through increasing production costs is doomed to failure.

Make-up-your-mind moment

Since this dual purpose was first introduced, we have said that the EU and CAP have arrived at a make-up-your-mind moment. We can either have cheap food for consumers and low environmental regulation for the primary producers, or we can have high environmental regulation for primary producers and correspondingly high prices for the consumers. What we can’t have are high environmental production costs and low retail prices. 

The next 50 years of the EU will be about many things – some of which are not even conceivable. Right now, the EU must understand that food production is costly, both economically and environmentally. CAP 2023-2027 gives no indication that this truth is recognised.