There are two ways to debate the role of the EU.
First, you can ask whether the UK should be in or out. This was front page news for the Sunday Times and the Observer yesterday and no doubt will be a topic that draws in the crowds at Conservative Party conference this week in Manchester.
But there is another debate – one about how the EU should operate and, for example, spend one trillion euros of European taxpayers money in the next budget period of 2014-2020.
While this constitutes just 1% of the total GDP of all 27 Member States, it is still an awful lot of money and it is worthy of a public debate.
Fortunately, the EU Budget was the topic at a fringe meeting held last night. This was hosted by the RSPB in partnership with the Conservative Environment Network. That’s one of the benefits of hosting fringes – you get to decide the topic for yourself.I shared the panel with Richard Benyon, the Biodiversity Minister, Garvan Walshe from the CEN and Jorge Nunez from the Centre for European Policy Studies.
I tried to argue that it was important for the UK Government not to get side-tracked by the more fundamental debate and roll up their sleeves to negotiate a Budget deal which not only benefited the UK, but was also in the wider interests of the EU’s environment.
Unfortunately, debates at the European level have been dominated by the short-term interests of Member States each defending their own red lines: the French wanting to keep the Common Agriculture Policy, the Spanish fighting for the Common Fisheries Policy, the new Member States defending the Cohesion and Structural Funds and yes, the UK still arguing over the content of Baroness Thatcher’s handbag – the UK rebate.
The result at the moment appears to be stalemate – political leaders failing EU taxpayers who have a right to expect better value for money.
From an environmental perspective, the EU Budget is currently a disaster. While Member States struggle to meet their environmental commitments (many set at an EU level) for climate change or halting the loss of wildlife, a tiny proportion of the EU budget is allocated to supporting these objectives.
Let me give you an example, since the 1960s farmland birds in the UK have almost halved, while their declines across Europe are something like 44%. Species such as the skylark and yellowhammer provide the soundtrack to our summer but struggled to cope as farmers implemented EU policies which fundamentally changed with the may farms were managed.
This and the previous government have committed to reverse the declines of species such as farmland birds. And in recent years, more farmers have been rewarded for managing their land with wildlife in mind. They have received incentives – in the form of agri-environment schemes – to help provide the things that wildlife needs. In the case of farmland birds that means – a place to nest, spring and summer food for chicks and food to help birds survive the winter. We know that these schemes, when designed well, do work. For example, at our commercial farm in Cambridgshire we have managed to triple the number of farmland birds over the last decade whilst increasing our wheat yield.
These agri-environment schemes form part of what is known as Pillar II of the Common Agriculture Policy. Pillar I makes up the bulk of the CAP spend (2.5billion annually in the UK) and is principally a support payment for farmers linked to no particular public policy objective.
It is fair to say that agri-environment schemes are core to the UK Government’s business model for nature conservation – a point reinforced in its Natural Environment White Paper where it has signalled that it wants to make these schemes work harder for wildlife. The Minister was strong on this point and it is clear that he wants to reform these schemes so they have more of an impact.
Now CAP constitutes something like 40% of the EU Budget (c400 billion euros over a six year period) and new draft regulations outlining how this money will be spent will be announced on 12 October.
Latest rumours are that Pillar II – that provides the support for wildlife-friendly farming – remains vulnerable (particularly because this bit of the Budget requires match funding from Member States).
In any rationale world, a cut to Pillar II would be ludicrous as this is the bit of the Budget that provides demonstrable public benefit and provides credibility to the CAP. But, in the political horse-trading that will go on over the coming months and given the extremely tough economic climate, we think that it is right to be cautious and act to shore up Pillar II quickly.
As Jorge Nunez said last night – it is those bits of the Budget which provide the most benefits that are under threat.
There are similar concerns over reforms to the Common Fisheries Policy, Transport and other funding schemes. This is why it is simple insufficient to argue about the size of the budget, it is the quality of the spend that counts.
I am not naive enough to expect a particularly informed public debate about the EU Budget. But I do expect this Government to support its Biodiversity Minister in fighting for a EU Budget deal that delivers for wildlife in the UK.
We have a year to fix this.