Coveney takes Cap reform talks to the wire
Minister for Agriculture faces several tense days of intricate bargaining
The main obstacle confronting Simon Coveney is the fierce opposition here to the proposal to reallocate some of the annual EU direct payment of €1.2 billion to Irish farmers. Photograph: Eric Luke
Simon Coveney is close to reaching the high point of his tenure as Minister for Agriculture. By his own reckoning, we are on the verge of achieving agreement on a new round of common agricultural policy (Cap) reform – and it is happening on his watch as chairman of the key EU negotiations.
However, there are still several tense days of intricate bargaining ahead before he emerges either as the champion of Irish farmers or the dealer who let them down.
Since January, Coveney has been chairing meetings of European agriculture ministers. There is general consensus that a deal will be concluded before Ireland’s EU presidency finishes at the end of this month.
A few weeks ago, Coveney successfully negotiated reform of EU fishery policy. He is increasingly confident he will win agreement on changes to shape agriculture for the next decade. But the farm talks are probably trickier and, as he listens to the deal-breaker demands of his 26 fellow ministers, as well as those from the European Commission and MEPs, he will especially have to deliver for his own farmers back home.
As the recent demonstration by the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) in Dublin indicated, there are still critical issues to be resolved over the next few days. Once again, Irish farmers are warning against a sellout by the Minister. The IFA, the State’s largest and most influential farm group, insists that the proposals are wrong and will stymie the ambitious growth targets in the Government’s own Food Harvest 2020 plan.
However, one may wonder why is there so much anxiety now when farm groups gave a cautious welcome to the draft deal approved by EU farm ministers last March? The IFA, for its part, accuses EU commissioner Dacian Ciolos of clawing back much of what was agreed then.
The main obstacle confronting Coveney is the fierce opposition here to the proposal to reallocate some of the annual EU direct payment of €1.2 billion to Irish farmers which would ensure a basic minimum payment for each farmer. For decades, there has been outrage about the imbalance between what top farmers receive and what the smaller earners get. But the attempt at redistribution has provoked fury because the main farm groups argue it would hit the State’s most productive farmers unfairly.
As usual, the language of EU negotiations is highly technical. Ciolos has proposed a “flattening” option, where every farmer would get paid a mandatory minimum payment of €196 per hectare.
However, Coveney has won considerable support from other countries for his alternative “approximation” model. This envisages that farmers getting less than 90 per cent of the national average (€264 per hectare) would receive a top-up to their payment but not a basic minimum.
This was proposed as a less severe option and was backed by the main Irish organisations. It initially envisaged €80 million being redistributed between farmers here, but the Minister now says it could be high as €120 million.
Teagasc says 51 per cent of Irish farmers would lose under both proposals. Some 49 per cent would gain with flattening. With “approximation” 41 per cent would gain and 8 per cent would have no change in their payments.
The small United Farmers Association, which has always called for more subsidies for those in need, has naturally welcomed the flat rate payment proposal. But the IFA is adamant that taking money from productive farmers, under both proposals, and giving it to inactive farmers would be hugely damaging for Irish agriculture. They fear that in “robbing Peter to pay Paul” between 20 per cent and 40 per cent could be sliced off the payments of the most efficient farmers – especially in the beef and sheep sectors.
While there has been some level of discontent within the IFA – particularly in the west – over its rejection of the flat payment proposal it has not been sufficient to change association policy on the issue.
Coveney also has to sort out a number of other matters such as the base year on which farmer payments are calculated, supports for young farmers and when sugar quotas will disappear.
As he enters the final highwire talks in Brussels, farm groups will watch to see if he can limit redistribution to about €80 million or if it will be as high as €120 million.