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Thursday, April 23, 2009 

Libertas - (Still not) the Irish Farmer's friend?

Libertas have made a great show of claiming to be for the farming community in the European elections, and have even roped in a former IFA man (Raymond O'Malley) to run for them. However, the following is an article written and published by Libertas' chief spokesperson John McGuirk in September 2005 on the website of the Thatcher-adoring Freedom Institute, which he was a member of then (as he is of Libertas now).

My question is this: can Irish farmers trust politicians who before they went looking for their votes had these sorts of opinions?
CAP for Beginners

Bertie, that is.

His latest attempt to defend the policy is perhaps his weakest and most blatantly dishonest to date. Take this example

"Farm size is crucial to farm profitability. Here Europe was - and still is – at a major competitive disadvantage. The average size of farm in the EU 15 is only 18 hectares. The comparable figure for the US is ten times bigger, at 178 hectares. Canada is at 422 hectares, Australia at 3243 hectares and Brazil has 273,000 farms which average 916 hectares. In this situation, it is abundantly clear that if the EU eliminated, or significantly reduced, support for agriculture, then European farms on the margins of commerciality would go out of business and European agricultural production would fall. The food supply gap would be filled by imports from, for example, countries in South America and Australasia which can produce at prices below European levels. "

It does not take an economics Ph.D to point out that CAP is precisely why Europe's farms remain at the size that they are. The reason countries in South America and Australasia can produce at "prices below European levels" is that farms in those countries that are not viable are not supported by an influx of taxpayers money, as is the case in Europe. A gradual withdrawal of subsidies here would force the price of Agricultural land down, and encourage farmers to expand in order to remain economically viable.

Anyway, he moves on:

"First, it is obvious that, as soon as Europe would start to buy in quantity from the world market the basic commodities that it currently produces, world market prices would rise."

In other words, poor South American farmers might actually receive a fair price for their goods.

Of course, CAP has kept prices in Europe artificially high for a generation, by subsidising excess production - if the market was completely open, prices would fall through the floor and thousands of the small farmers mentioned above would find their holdings unviable. What the Taoiseach is referring to is the fact that opening the Market would equalise world prices, - raising them for farmers in the developing world, and lowering them here. 0/10 for honesty there, Bert. Try again:

"Food security can be too easily taken for granted. Let us not forget that just over half a century ago, much of Europe was still subject to food rationing. Indeed in the late 1940s hunger stalked many European countries. It would be grossly irresponsible if the European Union with its 450 million inhabitants, the vast majority of whom live in urban areas, did not place food security at the heart of its agricultural policy"

Translation: We would be irresponsible if we did not prepare for a calamity that affected our ability to get food from overseas.

Resisting for a moment the temptation to compare our dear leader's concern for our food supply (spend millions producing food we don't need in case there's a famine) with his concern for say, the risks of a Nuclear Meltdown (down an iodine tablet, shut the windows, and pray), and also leaving aside the fact that any calamity that impeded our ability to import food would in all liklihood impede our ability to produce food as well, (like say, a war), this is, well, a bit like sending a badminton player out dressed like an ice hockey goalkeeper. Sure, he might get hit really hard by the shuttlecock and get knocked out, - but the protective gear will impede his ability to compete at any level with the opposition, and the fact that he's wearing it in the first place will make him look, well, weak.

Then again, there is the social argument for CAP:

"Vulnerability of food supplies would not be the only negative result of a significant cutback in the CAP. There would also be a serious outflow of labour from the land of Europe. This would add to pressure on non-agricultural labour markets and on urban housing markets. Farm size in the more fertile areas would increase and land in the marginal areas would be abandoned. The social and economic fabric of rural areas would be damaged, and the contribution of rural life to the cultural diversity of Europe would be weakened. The physical environment would also be adversely affected as the management of landscape features such as hedges, stone walls, wetlands and woodlands breaks down."

Bertie, not even the most militant Free-Marketeer demands that we make the farmers of Europe go cold-turkey on CAP. A ten to twenty year period of phasing the policy out would allow the issues raised by the Taoiseach regarding Urban housing infrastructure to be dealt with at a managable rate. As regards the idea that the Environment would somehow be damaged by less intensive farming, well it's somewhat baffling, frankly.

And of the social fabric of rural Europe? Well, two things. Firstly, abandoning CAP does not mean abandoning farming as an industry, - it means making sure that our agricultural output is appropriate to our needs. Logically, this means bigger, more profitable farms. In Britain, which does not benefit from CAP to a fraction of the extent of other EU States, mainly because farms there are much larger and less dependent on subsidies, the "rural way of life" is equally as vibrant as it is here. This is, simply, because farms on a large scale cannot be run by one farmer and his family alone, - it is neccessary to employ people on a significant scale. The farms will contiunue, therfore, to support significant rural communities who depend on them for an income.

Secondly, the economic support structure for the rural way of life is no longer confined exclusively to the agricultural sector and its output. Increasingly, the rural way of life is an attraction in itself, with rural tourism becoming a hugely important sector of the economy. Abolishing CAP, and encouraging less intensive farming, will not impact on this sector, - indeed it may well encourage further growth.

Finally, it is important to realise that we do now live in an industrial and services based economy. Continued migration from the rural to the urban economies is inevitable, and not something we should neccessarily worry about. Indeed, ther is increasing evidence in recent years that this migration is increasingly two-directional, with more and more families now seeing the attraction of country life, particularly in raising children.

The time to end CAP has now come. It's continued existence, in summary, promotes artifically high prices for consumers at the price of third world farmers. It consumes 50% of the EU budget, which is redistributed to 2% of the population, who account for 1% of GDP. It is unfair to the rest of us, and unfair to many developing countries, at whom we continue to throw aid while hampering their primary source of export income.

The Taoiseach should have the guts to come out and say so. Here he has an opportunity to get on the right side of history.

(All bolding and underlining is mine)

And before this is claimed as a once-off, here's what Daily Mail columnist Richard Waghorne (John McGuirk's comrade in the Freedom Institute then, and in Libertas now) had to say, in an article on the same website in July of that year:
IFA revealingly honest

From ireland.com:

"Irish Farmer Association (IFA) President John Dillon has called on the Minister for Agriculture Mary Coughlan to resist EU proposals to reform the sugar industry.

Addressing thousands of sugar beet farmers at a protest rally in Brussels today, Mr Dillon said the Irish industry "cannot survive" if the commission's proposals are adopted."

In other words, the IFA and critics of current European agricultural arrangements agree: the industry is inefficient and incapable of standing on its own feet.

Let's be clear about what agricultural subsidies mean. Whereas typical calls for subsidies or bail-outs work off the spurious idea that if the state provides temporary financial assistance the industry will survive and later prosper, agriculture has long ago given up on the idea that it's own activities make any economic sense.

The IFA added that reforms would wipe out the "last remaining 3,500" beet growers. Presuming that they mean the jobs and not the workers themselves (though the IFA have been know to make odd claims before), it would be a first for economic history if a comparatively small number of workers were unable to reskill in a growing economy with almost non-existent unemployment.

Indeed, though it's hardly original to point it out, candlemakers and their associated support industries handled the transition to new professions without any noticeable trouble. But agriculture itself is the model. The sector in the US declined from 60% of the economy, as a proportion of jobs, to 2% today. Even with the current US hesistancy towards free trade, nobody is suggesting that reversing that change would make sense. Just think of the cost to the US economy if they'd tried to maintain proportion of the labour force in agriculture at that level. It's the same story in Ireland. The economic pressure is clear; the costs of resisting are massive; the gain from the common sense solution - abolition of the subsidies - enormous.

There is no need for the state to fund agriculture. If the appearance of the countryside is the issue, hire landscapers. It would cost of fraction of the current burden.
So, both Mr. McGuirk and Mr. Waghorne seem to agree that farming isn't that important, and that we can instead "hire landscapers".

What do Libertas really think of farmers? Are they simply trying to pull the wool over the eyes of Irish farming communities? At a time when farmers are under greater threat than ever, can they really afford to vote for a political party that no-one knows?

Update 24/04/09 As reminded by Keith Martin and Paddy Matthews in the comments to this post, there are yet more opinions from 'Libertas' activists that may be of interest for the ordinary farmers who are the backbone of rural areas. The first is Constantin Gurdgiev, a Russian economist lecturing in Trinity College, who continues with McGuirk's "the countryside as recreational parkland for the urban middle class" theme. The second is the words in 2003 of the Libertas/Rivada chairman himself, Englishman Declan Ganley:
If the laudable goal of preventing human tragedy is their focus, then Messers Schroeder and Chirac would do well to carry out an inspection of one of the biggest weapons of mass destruction being detonated in these times, our very own European Common Agricultural Policy, which, because of its trade barriers and subsidization, will result in thousands of deaths around the world in 2003.

Now, it may very well be that I would be doing the Chairman an injustice by not providing the context of where he was leading to next with this, which is not as widely quoted:
Personally, I do not know what the Americans, Brits, Spanish, Aussies and others will do to the Iraqis, but I would bet that the average citizen in Iraq will be a hell of a lot better off in three years time than they are today, or than they would be if some of Europe’s leaders had their way by sending off a few thousand UN blue helmets backing up gangs of inspectors on Saddam’s home turf. One would think they would have recent memory of European “blue helmets” being tied to trees in the Balkans, disempowered and standing by as the fathers and sons of Sebrenica were murdered under their very noses. They should also add further thought to how inspectors who are not given total cooperation could ever find anything hidden in the vastness of Iraq.

There you have it - Ganley's enthusiasm for the same distortions and exaggerations that the Bush administration peddled to justify their invading Iraq. And does Ganley regret this cheerleading for George W. Bush's illegal and bloody wars, six years on and with 100,000 innocent Iraqis dead? I'll leave the company that he keeps these days to speak for itself.

Update 26/04/09 PeopleKorps has more, via Finfacts.

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"Libel"-Richard Waghorne
"Attack blog"-Damien Mulley

About me

  • An early-thirties male Irish technologist living and working in Dublin, I'm a former (recovering) member of both Fianna Fáil and the Roman Catholic Church.

    I'm not a member of any political party these days, but my opinions can be broadly categorised as 'lefty' and republican. I am also a former member of the Irish Defence Forces.

    Please feel free to check out the FI Fie Foe Fum group blog, where I was once a regular contributor, and the Cedar Lounge Revolution, where I can usually be found in the comments.

    (This blog and its contents reflect only my own personal opinions as a private citizen, and not those of any other person or organisation.)



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