November 12, 2019 - 7:00am

Last week’s long read from the New York Times about “oligarchs and populists” in Central and Eastern Europe milking EU farm subsidies for millions is still making waves.

It’s a convoluted story, but here’s how the authors sum it up:

Farm subsidies helped form the basis for the modern European Union. Today, they help underwrite a sort of modern feudalism in which small farmers are beholden to politically connected land barons…

…in former Soviet bloc countries, where the government owned lots of farmland, leaders like Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, have auctioned off land to political allies and family members. And the subsidies follow the land.

- New York Times

If I read the report correctly, it’s not alleging that any particular subsidy claim has been made fraudulently, but rather that access to farmland, and therefore, payments under the Common Agricultural Policy, enables a system of “patronage”.

That doesn’t sound good, but how different are the ex-Communist member states from the rest of the EU? One can certainly criticise CAP payments as “welfare for a farming elite”, but that’s an EU-wide phenomenon in which 80% of the subsidies go to the biggest 20% of claimants.

In England, half the country is owned by just 25,000 landowners. According to Guy Shrubsole, author of Who Owns England?30% is still in the hands of the “aristocracy and gentry”. Some of this would be land originally obtained in murky (indeed, murderous) circumstances — but given that it happened several centuries ago, the newspapers aren’t interested .

Today, owning farmland in the UK gets you access to farm subsidies and tax benefits. Plus there’s the possibility of a major windfall if planning permission is granted for development. No wonder we’ve seen investors pile in, at times pushing up farmland prices even faster than house prices

This contributes little to the common good and yet government allows well-connected individuals and corporations to profit handsomely from unproductive speculation. Isn’t this “patronage” too?

Of course, no amount of whataboutery can excuse wrongdoing in the ‘new Europe’, but ‘old Europe’ ought to set a better example. The case for CAP reform is overwhelming. Unfortunately, I don’t see enough governments agreeing to it, and especially not the French — who have been milking the system longer and harder than anyone.

There is one country, however, that could lead the way. Britain should be out of the EU soon and thus free to create a farm support system fit for the 21st century — one supported by complementary reforms to land taxation and the planning laws.

Would the Conservatives ever run with this agenda? They would if they knew what was good for them — their long association with the ‘landed interest’ is toxic to the Tory brand.

There’d be no better way of breaking free than emptying a few overstuffed tweed pockets.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.