Saturday, August 19, 2006

Sandwich jambon de pays

Now on holiday wandering about in the Pyrenees and enjoying the seemingly effortless routine cuisine of provincial France: Garbure, Cuisse de Canard, Tarte aux Myrtilles etc. How is that they do it so well, yet we in Britain do it so poorly? I don't mean a comparison with London's finest dining establishments, but the food you find in any cafe or bistro anywhere - France far outshines its English eqivalent (the only possible exception being the bacon sandwich, and scholars of porcine gastronomy are divided on that). I return to an earlier subject, the underperforming British consumer... I just think the French are born and brought up to expect fine tasting, delicious food made with excellent ingredients... which are duly supplied by farmers through local markets and turned into great food by cooks that care about their trade.

How much of this is down to the CAP, which is so aggressively defended by French farmers? Well I suspect not much, as the same system produces fields of barley and oil-seed rape in Britain and Britain's emerging farmers' market movement hardly relies on CAP payments at all. But just suppose that support for French farmers truly did underpin French regional gastronomy, would it be acceptable? One might even consider a 'cuisine' (as opposed to food) to be a public good, like a language or a mythology - and worth preserving at a cost greater than that which its immediate users are prepared to pay. In my view, support for French farmers might be justified under two conditions: first that the support is provided by the French taxpayer or food consumer - not by transfers between EU member states. Second, that the support is as far as possible non-trade distorting so that other countries are not forced to follow or introduce barriers to trade. This is the key to CAP reform in my opinion - let each country decide if, why and how to support its farming industry but in a way that doesn't require everyone else to do the same.


Anonymous said...

I always find your posts highly informative - or at least entertaining. But I'm never quite sure whether I understand or agree with your approach to subsidiarity when it comes to European policy instruments.

I am sure you are right about the now pretty well recognised failings of the CAP, but surely devolving everything is not necessarily the right or only conclusion.

Is it not a good thing, for example, that at least 25% of the resources in Pillar II of the CAP will need to go into environmental land management measures *Europe-wide*? Isn't it a good thing that some conditions are attached to Structural Funds (e. g. on equal opportunities) that apply across member states. And in that sense, wouldn't it be preferable to try to identify new, better policies which can be applied across Europe, rather than dismantle the European project - which your approach to subsidiarity sometimes seems to come close to.

Another question on which I would appreciate your analysis is, what would count as the market failure that could justify Government support for any type of cuisine? The main problem in your analysis seems to be that consumers just aren't looking for a good deal?

Now I feel bad for destroying the atmos of your foodie post with this dry chat... I should have asked whether you are also enjoying the vin rouge without thinking to much of the European wine regime...

Clive Bates said...

Hello anon, all good points... I'm not really for so much of a Year Zero approach to subsidiarity as might sometimes appear... but I do think we should examine the underlying rationale for these expenditures and transfers at EU level... and be very cautious about them.

I don't think the french should subsidise their farmers to protect their gastronomy, but I think it is more important that this is their call and their right to have a dumb approach to farm policy if at's what they decide to be important. The main thing is that others are not required to be in lock step with them - as with the CAP. Having said that, I think the idea that a cuisine is a bit like a language might be a runner for a 'market failure' test. Analagous with expenditures to protect Welsh, Gaelic, Basque etc.

On structural funds, I'm glad that equal opportunities are a condition, though I'm not really sure what an equal opportunities road looks like...) But are the right roads (and other projecs) being built? Or are ineffecive projects chasing the available money? I did a posting on flood projects funded by the structural funds a while back, and it's not a happy story - the projects would not be funded under UK prioritisation of the flood risk funding because they have poor project societal cost-benefit analysis. Yet the money originally comes from the UK taxpayer - so the structural funds effectively diverts public money into less attactive projects.

But the real question you pose I would interpret as: "what are good reasons to spend money at the EU level?".

There are several straight forward ansers to this (foreign affairs and security, making the internal market, so large scale R&D and a few other things that form a core collective action function for the EU). More interesting and subtle might be where market failure extends to "government failure"... where we might expect the poorer and weaker governments to be unable or unwilling to address market failures such as provision of public goods or other classic roles for government. This is the sort of place where a Pillar II-type mechanism might fit. So I favour a "sustainable development mechanism" to replace CAP that would make these kind of transfers. Though longer term, as the poorer countries progress, I'd expect the prime driver of environmental protection to be the body of EU regulation on the environment (a formidable acquis) with compliance costs carried by consumers/beneficiaries through the polluter pays principle. As that happens, I'd rather see the wealthy EU states funding the external agenda rather than other EU states. For example, the stability of former Soviet states, North Africa and the Middle East and funding accession by Turkey and the Balkans.

Probably rambled enough on this for now, but I think the interesting prior questions to "what are good reasons to spend money at the EU level?" are "what is the EU for?" and "what are the rights and responsibilities of member states?"... I'm sure I'll get back to that... and your views very welcome.

Still enjoying the Pyrenees food and wine... nothing could distract from that.