This time Irish farmers might need an EU special deal

By Stephen Cadogan

IFA President Joe Healy didn’t soften his words to his Association’s 63rd Annual General Meeting on Tuesday.

“Without a strong CAP, Irish beef, sheep and tillage farmers in particular will go out of business,” he said.

Such is the shadow Irish farmers live under.

Searching for a bright side, the IFA President’s statement indicates he thinks our 18,000 dairy farmers, at least, might survive without a strong Common Agricultural Policy in the EU.

But another 100,000 or so farmers could be on borrowed time.

That is a worryingly flimsy foundation for providing most of the raw material which our food industry transforms into exports which reached a record €13.5 billion in 2017.

As Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar said in his address to the IFA AGM, the agri-food sector is one of the engines of the Irish economy, sustaining employment all over the country, often in places where there are few other opportunities, as well as generating export revenues and regional development.

One could ask the question, how do farmers hold their nerve and play their role in the agri-food sector, and in eight years of growing food exports, when beset by so many major challenges as Brexit, the CAP Budget, Mercosur and climate change, challenges which Joe Healy said will all converge in 2018?

Did IFA delegates come away from their AGM, also addressed by Agriculture Minister Michael Creed, invigorated enough to face into another year of potentially tougher challenges than ever?

The Taoiseach acknowledged the ongoing uncertainty due to Brexit making business planning more difficult.

But farmers face several other hurdles, including the CAP budget talks in the coming months, and final decisions in May.

Farmers fear CAP budget cuts and farmer income cuts as an inevitable consequence, because Brexit means the EU loses a net contributor to the budget, the UK.

Also frightening farmers is the EU attempt to agree a free trade deal with Mercosur countries in South America.

Joe Healy says it’s “incredibly frustrating” for Irish farmers to hear so much emphasis on climate issues by key European politicians (including Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan), who at the same time want to give Mercosur countries, including Brazil, more access to the EU for their beef, which has four times the carbon footprint of beef produced in Ireland.

The IFA AGM was like many of its predecessors, with the President seeking the backing of high-powered guest speakers to help farmers through another year.

So it was gratifying that the Taoiseach was able not only to attend, but also promised the farmers; “this Government will always have your back.”

But can the Taoiseach and his Government get the EU to stand by farmers and acknowledge the support Irish farmers have shown towards the EU?

Joe Healy indicated that nothing less than that is necessary, including member states contributing more to the EU budget to make up for the UK’s departure, and retention of free agri-food trade between the EU and UK.

It’s a tall order, but the IFA seems to indicate that a special deal for Ireland may be needed, if our agri-food sector is to overcome the major challenges facing it in 2018.

IFA probably has one eye on the UK, but the other on France, where signals from President Emmanuel Macron are interpreted by some to mean that the CAP is not the French sacred cow it once was, and after Brexit blows a €9 billion per year hole in the EU budget, farmers may have to lose out.

The word in Brussels is that EU Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger welcomes Macron’s CAP funding signals.

However, the early signals in EU budget talks also include calls from across the EU for a special fund to help regions most exposed to Brexit. Maybe that is the quarter from which help for Irish farmers could come.

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