Voting Yes to fiscal treaty in farming's best interests
OPINION: I AM a strong believer in doing everything possible to build confidence and goodwill for our sector and our country.
A Yes vote on May 31st for the fiscal stability treaty is the best option if we hope to retain the necessary confidence for inward investment which is so vital for jobs and growth. A Yes vote will also build further goodwill in the European Union as the Government works to secure long-term sustainable support to assist in our economic recovery.
Farmers need a stable, competitive business environment, with access to affordable interest rates and the goodwill of EU customers to buy our growing agricultural exports. The Irish Farmers’ Association has brought together the leaders of our farming and agri-business to present a strong and united consensus for a Yes vote to underpin our €9 billion in food exports and the 300,000 jobs in the sector.
Since 2008, farm families have taken massive and disproportionate cuts in income-related farm schemes, combined with a raft of new taxes and levies, which are hitting all working families hard. However, on this occasion, I am asking farm families to separate these issues from the fiscal treaty decision, as a protest vote can only lead to business instability and harsher measures for all Irish families within a shorter time frame. The association will continue to work to find acceptable solutions to the day-to-day problems of farming.
Our Government must do more to support production. And our farming and food sectors must be targeted for investment to deliver on the Government’s own growth targets and to provide sustainable jobs and exports into the future.
Jobs and services must be prioritised and incentives and reward for hard work protected. In securing any future support from Europe for growth, a minimum requirement is for a fully-funded Common Agricultural Policy (Cap) after 2014. I have left Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney in no doubt about farmer expectations in this regard. A Yes vote will strengthen our hand in these negotiations.
Undoubtedly, we have a long and difficult road ahead to recovery. The challenges we face are enormous, but the continued support of our European colleagues is vital. From my engagement with officials and politicians in Brussels and elsewhere, I get a solid sense of goodwill for our efforts to stabilise the economy.
Recently, for example, I met farm leaders in Germany. In our broader discussions beyond the future of the Cap, it was clear they saw Ireland in a positive and different light and acknowledged the action we have taken. Our Government must build on this goodwill.
Just last week, Joseph Daul MEP addressed our executive council on the future of Europe and the future of the Cap, which are two issues he sees as very much interlinked. As the leader of the influential European People’s Party group in the parliament, he has tremendous goodwill towards Ireland and our sector in particular. We should harness that by endorsing the treaty.
Our agri-sector has ambitious targets for growth and an acceptable solution to the Cap reform under negotiation is vital. Access to credit at a competitive rate will be vital for the investment required to make this a reality. Dairy expansion, for example, will require funding of €1.5 billion at farm level.
The banks have been bailed out by the Irish taxpayer. Adequate funds are not being made available to our sector and bureaucracy and slow decision-making is stifling investment. It appears the level of regulation and checks, so lacking in the boom years, is now strangling recovery. A stable euro and interest rate environment is vital for business and a Yes vote is our best chance of achieving this.
A major reason why farm families should endorse this treaty relates to the Cap. Agriculture is the only major sector with a common EU policy and is centrally funded from the EU budget. Amid the turmoil which exists because of the financial crisis, we should remind ourselves that the policy has delivered significant benefits for producers and consumers across the EU and brings much-needed inward investment into Ireland.
The Cap underpins the production of high quality, environmentally-sustainable food at reasonable prices. It also supports economic activity in every part of the country, with an estimated 300,000 jobs in agriculture, food and related service industries.
Negotiations concerning the size and structure of the Cap after 2014 are likely to step up in the next 12 months. The association has identified that some of the proposals have the capacity to cause disruption at farm level and undermine production at a national level. The upheaval that would result would be very damaging to our production base and any changes must have a long lead-in.
A satisfactory solution to the Cap negotiations is critical for Ireland if we are to sustain and grow our exports and jobs in the sector.
We have pointed out the problems with a flattening of the payment model and the introduction of restrictive greening measures. The commissioner for agriculture, Dacian Ciolos, heard first hand at our annual general meeting in January the concerns of Irish farmers. At the highest political level here and in Brussels we have conveyed the need for Ireland to have sufficient flexibility in any final agreement.
As we work to effect changes that would provide the sector with a solid platform for growth, influence and goodwill at EU level have never been as important. A Yes vote is the right decision.
Side by side with the Cap reform is the plan to meet ambitious growth targets under the Food Harvest 2020 programme. At a time of rising global demand for sustainably produced food, the next Cap must ensure Irish farming can realise its potential and capitalise on our natural resources.
We are on target to reach exports of €12 billion in the next eight years as the agri-food sector puts in place plans to expand. Farm families recognise the importance of a solid foundation when making decisions about their business. Voting Yes on May 31st is part of that.
John Bryan is president of the Irish Farmers’ Association