EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan put himself in the farmer’s boots last week, sympathising with those filling out application forms for EU payments at kitchen tables late at night, or at the home computer — but followed for some of them by feelings of incomprehension and victimisation a couple of months later, when errors are found in the application, an inspector appears, and the farmer can be penalised, and direct payments cut.
Mr Hogan said the vast majority of farmers are honest, decent hardworking people, doing a tough job in difficult conditions, at all hours of the day and night, seven days a week.
“It is a family effort, with partners, children, neighbours and relatives all pitching it at various times,” he said.
For many of them, entitlements are a vital part of their income, they apply in good faith, but a climate of fear is created from errors, with “repeat offenders” facing even harsher penalties.
He said it is not in the spirit of fair play to treat an honest mistake as an “offence”, and not proportionate, especially if the error is minor and occurs for the first time.
He was explaining his new, fairer system of penalties for errors, as well as a “yellow card” system for first time mistakes, which he hopes will end the stress and anxiety that many hard working farm families feel when filling out detailed forms.
He said he is also shifting the emphasis from national authorities “policing” farmers to actively aiding them in ensuring that their forms are accurate — in the form of preliminary checks of aid applications to be made by national authorities, proactively helping farmers to ensure that their applications are accurate.
Farmers have followed up by demanding that his simplification measures be put in place for their 2016 applications, but it remains to be seen if the EU and national bureaucracies can move that fast.
Having previously announced these CAP simplifications last November, Commissioner Hogan didn’t hesitate to trot out the details again last week in the European Parliament.
Because he needs all the brownie points going, to balance the rising clamour of complaints across the EU from dairy farmers, with pig farmers also shouting from the wings.
Unfortunately, the Commissioner may have little scope to help them, admitting at the International Green Week in Berlin that the difficulties of dairy and pig farmers will continue for the next six months.
After that, he hopes for normalisation of prices and trade deals.
The €500 million farm aid package he announced last September included the re-opening of private storage for pigmeat, which happened in the first week of January, and a €13.7m share of cash aid for about 18,000 Irish farmers, coincidentally the same sum which went to last Saturday’s national lottery winner.
But Hogan’s Berlin statement may indicate that the Commission’s cupboard is now bare, and farmers must just tighten their belts while the Commissioner hopes, like everyone else, for something out of the blue to revive dairy markets.
One must ask how some farm farmers can tighten their belts any further.
Here, Ornua predicts an average milk price of 24-25c per litre for 2016, below the cost of production for most dairy farmers.
But the most intense political pressure on Commissioner Hogan will come from the continental member states, where there have been calls from dairy farmers for his resignation since December.
Nearly 60% of voters on the Melkvee.nl Dutch dairy website called for him to go.
The European Milk Board, representing about 100,000 milk producers in 15 European countries, says the EU Commission is boosting milk volumes and pushing down milk price, with Commissioner Hogan saying the milk market has stabilised and is not in a crisis, even as farmers struggle with prices under 30c.
The EMB says enabling farmers to earn a decent living is one of the main CAP rules, but Hogan refuses to help, and his position is no longer tenable.
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