With Europe edging towards a new budget settlement, Westminster appears gripped by a wave of Euroscepticism at this important time for rural Scotland.
Headline-grabbing calls to cut ever deeper into those EU budgets that support and develop the wider economy risk overwhelming the real political challenges in Europe and blocking potential benefits for the UK and devolved administrations.
The modern Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is an engine for economic activity, while acting as an anchor to agriculture that is key to future food security in a world where supply is no longer guaranteed. In Scotland, where livestock production has been falling, the new CAP has the potential, through coupling payments to stock, to bring production back into balance.
Within the CAP reform process is a commitment to move funding to those member states and regions – like Scotland – that have been disadvantaged by low levels of support historically.
Scotland is near the bottom of the CAP funding league, with direct farm support less than half the average rate in Europe. In rural development spending, which includes agri-environment and habitat management payments, Scotland only draws down 15% of the EU average. Other parts of the UK also face significant disadvantage. So unsurprisingly, the UK as a whole is not favoured by CAP budget allocations.
The level of EU spending and the reform process will develop a new framework for the CAP, including a new focus on "greening" support to secure environmental benefits. A CAP reform deal will shape the future of Scotland's rural areas over the next decade and beyond.
In Brussels, the door has been opened to a fairer distribution of rural development funding and there are real opportunities for the UK and Scotland, but only if the Defra Secretary of State Owen Paterson MP engages positively in the process.
The present focus at Westminster on cutting further into the European Commission's proposed CAP budget, which already moves spend down in real terms, would severely undermine the best interests of Scotland's rural economy and its food and drink sector. The political posture risks sidelining the UK from key decision-making in Europe and, in so doing, removes the potential of negotiating an increased share of rural spending.
There is a real opportunity to win a more sustainable level of rural development funding too, which could drive business development in a more diverse rural economy, allowing communities to become more self-reliant, and ensure we safeguard and enhance our priceless environmental assets.
UK ministers have now to look beyond rhetoric and work with the Scottish Government and Europe for the future of rural Scotland.
Nigel Miller, President, NFU Scotland, Rural Centre, West Mains, Ingliston, Midlothian;
John Cameron, President, Scottish Beef Cattle Association and President, National Sheep Association Scotland;
Alan McNaughton, President, Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers;
Luke Borwick, Chairman, Scottish Land & Estates;
Angus McCall, Chairman, Scottish Tenant Farmers Association;
Hamish McBean, Chairman, National Beef Association Scotland;
John Gregor, Past President, Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland.
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