December 12 2013 Latest news:
Saturday, October 12, 2013
After decades of combing through the fine details the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), solicitor Richard Barker has become a recognised expert in the field.
Richard, of Barker Gotelee solicitors at Martlesham Heath, Ipswich, is steeped in the subject. He also advises European Union member states on state aid issues, generally around agriculture but also extending into other areas such as municipal waste, and has helped farmers when they have sought to challenge or resolve certain aspects of CAP. In addition, he advises member states on potential breaches of advertising guidelines under state aid regimes.
He is a regular guest speaker at farming conferences, where his in-depth knowledge sheds light on the complexities of the CAP.
He sees the view which is gaining ground that we in the UK are better served outside the European Union (EU) as as warped as the so-called ‘bent banana’ debate.
Stories of Eurocrats bent on straightening bananas help fuel Euroscepticism, but do not reflect the truth behind such cases, he believes.
Richard, 69, remains as fired by enthusiasm as he unravels the complexities of CAP regulations as he was when he first visited the EU epicentre in Brussels a quarter of a century ago, and his enjoyment of the subject is infectious.
He is now a regular visitor to Brussels and has a great respect for many of the so-called “Eurocrats” who beaver away behind the scenes to keep the EU on track.
“My dealings are primarily with the (European) Commission because it’s the Commission that initiates policy, consults on it, drafts the legislation and, once it’s approved, enforces it as required,” he says.
“It’s a body that in my experience is open. It’s not like Whitehall in that sense. They are very willing to meet outsiders, generally speaking. They are very bright officials without arrogance who realise they do not have all the answers and are therefore delighted to meet outsiders involved in farming or whatever it might be and discuss issues with them and that’s been my experience throughout the past 25 years. It’s that openness which is quite extraordinary and they will move heaven and earth to level the playing field.”
When working properly, he believes that CAP is a force for good, and that subsidy does have its place.
“I believe the CAP, when looked at properly, when all its aspects are understood, is a policy for the good of farmers and of food production, the environment, health and the climate. But it’s sad it’s not regarded in those circumstances because that’s actually what it’s about.
“The CAP is not perfect of course, and that’s recognised by the EU which has specific policies for supporting third world countries to allow them to develop their own agricultural systems.”
He thinks the UK gains from being a member of the EU, and he would be “desperately unhappy” if the country voted to leave “because I cannot see that as a single country we’ll have the influence and clout needed to protect our interests, particularly when we are dealing with a world that’s divided itself into very large trading blocs”.
While he readily admits he is not an economist, and therefore won’t attempt to make the economic argument, he recognises “a steely determination” from those within the Euro club to maintain the currency.
“It’s a very powerful desire which again you pick up in Brussels. When you are talking to member of the Commission whose countries are in the Eurozone the extraordinary passion they have for it. We are not aware of it here. It will mean the EU will change and I can well see a situation where you have a two-tier Europe, which I don’t mind. I think it could be worked out effectively where we have a single trading organisation, which we do, but it will be operated on two levels. Exactly what they are, I don’t have a clue and neither does anyone else.”
Perhaps because some of his roots are Flemish through his mother’s side of the family, the Gildersleeves, Richard, whose family comes from Leiston and Knodishall, feels a natural affinity with Europe and with Brussels, although he is fiercely proud of his British and Suffolk heritage.
Around the time of the Flemish branch’s move to England, an extraordinary single currency existed between England, part of Wales and Flanders, so as Richard points out: “There’s nothing new under the sun.”
His father, Leslie, was in the medical profession, and May, his mother, grew up on a farm. After the war the family farms were sold, although exactly why remains a family mystery, and his grandfather became a farm manager.
Quite what was behind Richard’s desire to become a lawyer is another mystery, although he can recall waking up in bed in the early hours of the morning at the age of 16 with a sense of clarity about his future career. He trained with East Suffolk County Council and qualified in Ipswich in 1969. It was a “wonderful” training, he recalls, and after qualifying he realised he enjoyed the complexities of taxation - the perfect training ground for his future specialism in CAP - although he did recover, he jokes.
“What I then realised was I had some knowledge of the business of farming and I made it my aim to develop a taxation practice helping and advising the farmer or landowner. Lots and lots of people do it now,” he says.
He joined Gotelee and Goldsmith in 1969, became a partner shortly afterwards, and got married.
He began to specialise in advising farmers and landowners in the taxation implications of their businesses and built up a considerable practice in that area until eventually he was head-hunted in 1988 by another law firm, Howes Percival in Northants, which wanted to expand into East Anglia. Richard and fellow partner Michael Gotelee, grandson of the founder, signed up.
They opened up an office in Martlesham and such was the volume of work that they put an advertisement in the Times for an assistant.
“I then had the biggest stroke of luck in my career because of the people I interviewed was a man called Geoffrey Harmsworth who qualified at the same time as me,” he recalls.
Geoffrey explained that he worked for the Commission in Brussels.
“He was part of the agricultural department and he said to me: ‘I don’t really want to change. I have come here out of curiosity really but you must come over and see me in the Commission.’”
Richard duly went, and was shown round for two days.
Over endless cups of continental coffee, Richard met a lot of people involved in European agricultural policy and found it fascinating. He returned, and by the second visit began to understand how this link could benefit his clients. The policymakers, he discovered, were as interested in hearing what he had to say as he was in their information.
“They wanted to know what my farming clients were up to, how they were coping, and we began a two-way discussion because I then started to go regularly. This was at the time in the late 1980s when for the first time agriculture became part of the World Trade Organisation. Up until then it ran its own policies. It took over 80% of the total EU budget. It had persuaded farmers to produce produce produce so we had butter mountains, wine lakes, huge surpluses distributed onto the world market, heavily subsidised, which had a bad effect on those markets,” he says.
“I was therefore privy to be close to the first involvement of agriculture in the form of the CAP in the world trade negotiation. CAP did exist but it operated by itself. The CAP was created shortly after the war to effectively to ensure that those members of the EEC trading organisation were able to produce enough food at a reasonable cost.
“I realised in order to be able to advise my clients better I needed to know what was happening in terms of policy because it was being devised and brought forward by Brussels and therefore I had to be there to understand what was happening, and also to be in a position to effectively challenge, when necessary, rulings of the UK agriculture department which I believed were contrary to either European legislation or the spirit of the policy. I’m the only one who’s doing it in this country,” he says.
In 1995, Michael and Richard left Howed Percival and launched Barker Gotelee, which is now a fairly sizeable concern, with James Skellorn as senior partner. The firm has 46 members of staff, including six partners.
About 15 years ago, Richard formed First in Brussels Ltd, a company which advises clients on EU policy issues. Its principle areas of work include state aid and in state aid matters he acts for a number of member state governments.
Today, CAP is concerned with a host of issues from health, both human and animal, the environment, the landscape, and the production of good quality food at reasonable prices.
“We live in a global world. I think one of the things that troubles me is the level of understanding that exists about Europe. It’s so easy to blame all failings on the European institutions. I have got countless examples of where that’s wrong,” he says.
He cites a story about Europe allegedly banning pounds, shillings and pence, when in fact the country that put that forward was the UK, anxious to ensure the country did not have a disadvantage operating in Europe. The Europeans, he believes, are pro-British. The question is what is our relationship with Europe.
“My direct experience of their perception of us is we have qualities that can enhance the European Union, that they do not wish us to leave, and they believe that there is a real possibility of producing changes which will satisfy our needs,” he adds.
He doesn’t hide the fact that he finds the deep Euroscepticism seeping in the mainstream of British politics a concern.
“They will do their best for us to be in the EU because it’s in their interest and ours. If we were to leave then I think their attitude will change. As the German foreign minister said: ‘Your referendum is not a return ticket - it’s a one-way ticket.’ In other words, if we vote out negotiating satisfactory terms to enable us to continue trading within the EU will not be easily achieved,” he says.
CAP is helping farmers and the citizens of Europe on a daily basis, he believes, and the European agricultural department officials work “incredibly hard”.
“When we were unregulated we had butter mountains and wine lakes and there was no linkage,” he says.
“It’s only because of the CAP we have had those links established. People were stuffing the fields with chemicals, now you have through the CAP a system which will improve the safety and quality of food whilst protecting the environment.
It’s highly effective, and “a massive achievement” which does great credit to both farmers and environmentalists, he says.
“I think we need to be better educated but one of my main criticisms of the Brussels institutions is their total failure to properly communicate to the EU public and therefore you have a situation where subsidised groups who have a direct involvement with European Union understand it in relation to their own particular concerns but not otherwise. So the idea it’s a gravy train persists, because nobody tells them otherwise.”