Varadkar tells farmers he will seek EU aid in a no-deal Brexit

Taoiseach criticised at IFA agm over comments about reducing meat consumption

IFA president Joe Healy, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed at the Irish Farm Centre in Bluebell, Dublin 12. Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times

IFA president Joe Healy, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed at the Irish Farm Centre in Bluebell, Dublin 12. Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times

 

Ireland will seek emergency EU aid for the agricultural sector in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.

In an address to the IFA annual general meeting dinner on Tuesday night, he said the Government had already alerted the European Commission ahead of the “uncertainty that we face in the next couple of weeks” to let them know an application for aid would be made.

Such aid “would enable us to cope with the impact on Irish trade”, particularly in exposed sectors, he said.

“Brexit I think is perhaps one of the greatest political challenges of our time and now is the time to hold our nerve.”

In a nod to his controversial comments on reducing his meat consumption, Mr Varadkar noted how the late US president George Bush had expressed his dislike of broccoli, to the disdain of farmers, who responded by sending him a 20-tonne shipment.

But, he said, the issue of diet and sustainable food production was an increasing topic of conversation and one the farming sector could not ignore.

“We shouldn’t stay silent about matters that affect all of us,” he said.

Speaking earlier at the agm, Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed said Irish ports will be prepared to deal with imports from Britain by the end of March, but uncertainty remains around the rules that will govern exports.

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Having briefed Cabinet colleagues about the threats posed by a hard Brexit, Mr Creed, speaking as he arrived at the agm, said that enough veterinary and clerical staff will be on duty at ports by the end of March.

New trade arrangements

Preparations are under way to supply temporary offices, IT, hardware and software to cope with new trade arrangements. “My bigger concern will be in the context of our exports,” the Minister declared.

The Government is also seeking some flexibility in the rules governing State aids

“We will know more in terms of what our obligations are in that area when the UK firms notify us as to how we need to certify our products,” he went on.

The Minister said he was confident the European Commission was ready to respond to Irish agriculture’s needs if a no-deal Brexit emerges. The Government is also seeking some flexibility in the rules governing State aids.

In 2018, Irish agri-food exports to the UK were valued at €4.5 billion, or 37 per cent of the total that left Ireland. A no-deal UK departure represents an “existential challenge” to much of the industry, the Minister said.

“What is unfortunate at this stage is that we don’t have a clear line of sight in terms of how the UK will respond. Will they apply tariffs? Obviously that is a critical issue,” he said.

“No matter what we are talking about in Brexit we are talking about damage limitation at best. A bad Brexit would be Armageddon, especially for our beef sector.”

“That said, not applying tariffs could equally be damaging because the obligation is that zero tariffs would be applicable to every third country, and the value of the market in the UK could consequently be undermined by third-country imports, particularly in the beef area.”

Pressure

Earlier, IFA president Joe Healy said pressure must be kept on the UK over Brexit terms, but he warned: “No matter what we are talking about in Brexit we are talking about damage limitation at best. A bad Brexit would be Armageddon, especially for our beef sector.”

He criticised Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for his recent comments on reducing personal meat consumption: “It is important that he remembers he is the Taoiseach for all of Ireland, not just Dublin,” he said.

“Of course the Taoiseach can eat what he likes but, as the leader of a country which relies so heavily on our agri-sector, we expect him to be more supportive of our top-quality products,” he said to loud applause at the IFA Farm Centre in Dublin.

Farmers are fed up with taking the rap for every climate ill that exists

Defending farmers against accusations about the role farming plays in global warming, Mr Healy insisted that Irish agriculture is sustainable, and that meat plays a central role in people’s diets. “It’s important to stay in the real world and to accept what is being done and what’s possible.

“Farmers are fed up with taking the rap for every climate ill that exists, particularly as we have been doing so much to address the issue,” he said, asking rhetorically where the country would be without farmers.

“People are entitled to eat what they want but they are not entitled to spread misinformation, fake news, fear and falsehoods about farming and the food we produce,” he said, without specifying any particular source of information.

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