Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern set out his stall in the defence of the CAP in the Financial Times last week but drew return fire from two of Europe's leading agricultural economists.
The Irish prime minister claimed that the CAP objectives set out in the Treaty of Rome were 'still valid today', although some think that circumstances in Europe are rather different today.
He then used the oft resorted to argument that we have to give the 'radical' 2003 reforms a chance to work. 'Farmers, like other business people, need a reasonable degree of stability in the policy environment in which they operate.' Well, they have had decades of handouts from European taxpayers and no one has seriously suggested a Kiwi style overnight abolition of the CAP.
He then goes on to argue that we shouldn't display our hand before the Doha Round talks in Hong Kong, which is reasonable enough. He then gets out the food security card, claiming that 'Europe's food supplies could, once again, become vulnerable.' He has the good sense not to mention terrorists, but even if extremists did manage to get to sea and blow up one or two ships carrying food, the impact would be negligible on overall supply.
We come to the crux of his real concerns when he starts to talk about damage to Europe's rural fabric and one hears echoes of de Valera's famous 1940s speech about Irish maidens dancing at crossroads etc. There is a serious point here, but what is needed is a vigorous and well designed rural development policy.
Ahern gets himself into trouble with his claims that there is 'a broad comparability of support' between the EU and the US. The OECD's Stefan Tangermann delivered a magisterial rebuke in a letter to the pink 'un, stating 'some numbers quoted are not exact.' (Put less politely, they are wrong). The former Gottingen professor points out that in the US in 2003 farm support stood at 15 per cent of receipts compared with 36 per cent in the EU.
Tangermann is constrained by the rules of an international organisation, but Reading University's Alan Swinbank was blunter. He notes that Ahern fails to point out that the decoupled subsidies are 'linked to lamd, enriching the land owner, and that they are based on area farmed, chiefly benefiting larger businesses rather than small, marginal farms'.
Swinbank points out that the October 2002 European Council meeting suggested 'that a ceiling would be set on CAP expenditure, not that a spending entitlement would be established.' The nub of his case is that the CAP 'is an imposition on the EU taxpayer crowding out other policy initiatives and creating winners and losers among member states. Mr Ahern overlooks the economic (and political) costs that a failed CAP imposes on the EU. Resources could be better deploted in other activities (providing genuine environmental benefits, and development in rural areas, for example).
The call for further reform will not go away. But the UK does not have sufficient political support to push it forward, despite Tony Blair's recent comment that his big regret about all the reforms he had undertaken was that they had not been radical enough.