Cutting the First Swath
From JOHN LAMBERT
IF the troubled spirit of the British farmer crossed the Channel last week to hover behind the chairs of the Lord Privy Seal and the Minister of Agriculture, during their talks with the Six in Brussels, it may well have felt more inclined to pat them heartily on the back than to menace them with a ghostly shot-gun. For in stating the British case, which provides a basis and a starting-point for the agricultural half of the negotiations on Common Market member- ship, the two Ministers did their clients (Com- monwealth producers as well as British farmers and consumers) proud. Mr. Heath led off with a statement of the Government's responsibilities to these various groups, and Mr. Soames fol- lowed up with a detailed exposition of the argu- ments behind the British position. Nor did they come merely seeking concessions—though the main well-argued request was for a lengthy transitional period: they had also a contribution of their own- the adoption of the British system of annual farm reviews--which was well received.
The phase of negotiations of which these two speeches and the ensuing discussion marked the opening is not concerned with fundamentals but with method and even more with timing. As Mr. Heath was at pains to point out, Britain accepts the basic principles of the common agricultural policy, as they were approved by the EEC Council of Ministers in November, 1960. She accepts the long-term objectives of a common price level, free trade in agricultural products inside the Community, and the maintenance of the living standard of the farmers; and she ac- cepts too the instruments to be used: a system of levies on imports from third countries, organisa- tion of some Markets at the Community level, and a central fund to finance intervention on the markets, the sale of surpluses, and long-term structural change. The logical and inevitable consequences of all this are realised and admitted by the Government—if not perhaps by the farmers. it will mean the abandonment of the present system of support by subsidies, in favour of a price level higher than the world one, and the end of free entry for Commonwealth farm products—and for the consumer higher prices.
What has to be negotiated, then, is not the final aim, but the characteristics and above all the length of the transitional period. Both British Ministers firmly maintained that all those con- cerned must be guaranteed a gradual adaptation, and Mr. Soames made quite clear what the Government considers a fair and adequate time for adaptation. The Six, he said, had had four years to reflect on the basic principles and pre- pare themselves, and were now to have seven and a half years to adapt themselves as the common policy was applied; yet the changes they had to make were fewer, since their national systems differed far less from the future Com- munity system than does the British one. The United Kingdom therefore wanted at least as long as the Six had had in all: which means twelve years. Willing as the Six are to admit British problems, and to grant that special arrangements may be essential, they balked, unanimously, at this. The 'four years of reflec- tion' had in any case not been used for any practical measures of adaptation: at best they might agree to a transitional period for the UK as long as their own is to be; but not longer.
Faced with this major divergence, and diffi- culties on other points, the Ministers decided that before there can be technical negotiations on details, or on particular products, they must reach agreement on the principles about all the major problems. The five major questions on which the deputies will be working until Ihe Ministers' next meeting on March 22 are those which emerged as crucial in the course of last week's discussion.
The first point is perhaps the least controver- sial. As Mr. Heath pointed out, British (and Danish) membership will completely alter the supply and demand situation in the Community for some products (pigmeat and eggs particu- larly), thus necessitating changes in the already agreed Regulations; in the fields where decisions are pending, a method must be found of taking British interests into account; and lastly Britain is asking for a common. policy also on mutton and lamb. The second point is more important: guarantees of farmers' incomes. Not considering the Community system as planned an adequate safeguard, the Government is asking that the States should keep the right, even when the farm common market is achieved, to give their farmers direct aid. Germany at least can be ex- pected to give this idea the most favourable consideration. It is in connection with farmers' revenues that Mr. Soames made his annual review proposal: he feels it would benefit the Community if all member States had an annual review like the British one—taking into account farm incomes, production levels and overseas trade conditions—serving as a basis for a review at Community level preceding the fixing of target prices.
Third on the deputies' listcomes the transitional period problem—that of determining, as M. Couve de Murville put it so objectively at his press conference, whether special terms for Britain are 'necessary and possible.' The fourth problem is perhaps the biggest and toughest of all: the Commonwealth. How is the enlarged Community to ensure the fooff-producing countries of the Commonwealth what are officially referred to as comparable outlets? Clearly there must be a gradual change, but the crucial problem is whether and how in the end the Commonwealth countries' sales in Britain are to be maintained despite the external levies of the enlarged Community. This already tricky problem is complicated by the need to consider it in relation to the possibilities of world-wide solutions for some products at least. Lastly, there is the question of what proportion Britain is to contribute to the Fund to be used for applying the common farm policy. A contribu- tion proportionate to her share in total imports • would be something like 50 per cent., %s hich would be, said the Lord Privy Seal, unfair.