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Column: Here's why the farmers are protesting on the streets of Ireland

The Irish agricultural sector supports 300,000 jobs and €9 billon in exports, but the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) proposals will inflict serious damage on thousands of farmers, writes Niall Madigan.

THE COMING WEEKS will see renewed focus on the debate about the future of food production in this country, as the next round of talks on CAP Reform will take place at a meeting in Luxembourg which begins on Monday, June 24. This is the final opportunity for the Irish Presidency to reach a deal on the next CAP, which will run from 2014 to 2020.

We must ensure that the eventual outcome works for European farmers, for our rural economy, for our environment, and guarantees the continued supply of high-quality food for Europe’s 500 million consumers.

Among the farming community, there is an acute sense of awareness of the importance of securing a deal that works for productive agriculture. However, anybody who wants to see our economy recover should also take a keen interest in the framework that will be established for our largest indigenous industry for the next seven years.

The CAP and what’s it all about?

For those outside the sector, they might well ask why this is so important, given that the CAP Budget for Ireland was put in place a number of months ago. Why is there so much debate about how the funding is distributed? And why are farmers protesting on the streets of Dublin?

In IFA, we have maintained consistently that there were two elements to CAP Reform which required strong negotiation by the Irish Government. The first was to retain as much of the Budget as possible, and the second was to allow for minimal re-distribution so productive farmers would be safeguarded.

Quite simply, what the Commission wanted to do with a flat-rate payment would have been hugely disruptive to our production base. It took no account of the level of activity or investment that farmers have undertaken.

Rewarding farmers for their hard work

The Single Farm Payment must remain focussed on rewarding farmers for their hard work and investment in producing food. It cannot spread payments indiscriminately, as it will undermine its importance in future EU funding reforms.

The Irish agricultural sector supports 300,000 jobs and €9 billion in exports, with achievable targets to increase both. However, the CAP proposals on the table will inflict serious damage on thousands of farmers and will inevitably undermine the Government’s own Food Harvest 2020 plan.  This plan, which coincidentally runs alongside the next CAP programme, aims to increase our exports to €12 billion.

This cannot be done if we decide to pursue the model favoured by the European Commission. The Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney agrees with our position and has come forward with an alternative version, which would limit the amount taken from active producers.

Standing our ground

When he met with his colleagues in March, he got strong support for this. What we are saying now is that we cannot have any slippage from the framework that was agreed at the Farm Council in March. For Minister Coveney, this means standing his ground and holding the line in opposing the Commission.

Allowing the Commissioner to get his way on this would undercut the Minister’s approximation model, which provides for a more gradual redistribution of payments and avoids massive upheaval for agricultural production in Ireland.

For Minister Coveney, he should be heartened by the backing from countries such as Spain and Italy at the recent meeting in Dublin.  In particular, the Spanish Minister took a very strong stance on the dangers inherent in the Commission’s plans.

Alliance with other member states

The European Parliament, which has co-decision powers for the first time, is also asserting itself in the process, which is important if the trilogue approach is to gain credibility. Rather than concede to the Commission, the Minister must strengthen the alliance with other Member States.

Since last autumn, when the Minister went around the country to promote his alternative to the Commission, this payment model has been held up as a far more acceptable outcome for Irish farming. Having assured farmers that he would work towards this, and having got agreement in March, the Minister cannot fail at the final hurdle.

IFA believes that the re-distribution must be targeted at new, younger farmers, and to those who have low payments.   A model that pays out without any regard to production levels cannot be justified.

As we approach the final talks, like-minded farming organisations who oppose the Commissioner’s proposals must intensify their efforts and work together to put pressure on our Agriculture Ministers and Members of the European Parliament.  This week I have attended meetings with the French farmers union FNSEA in Paris and with MEPs in Strasbourg.

For the Minister, this is the moment for him to deliver the deal that works for Ireland.

Niall Madigan is the national press officer for The Irish Farmer’s Association.

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Niall Madigan

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