As is usual with farming matters, much of the real political action takes place in Brussels, where EU leaders will hold a video-conference tomorrow to discuss the Covid-19 recovery fund and a new EU long-term budget.
Unless it goes well, and paves the way for a more decisive summit expected in July, all the plans in last Monday’s programme for government might have to be put on hold.
Some describe the EU’s recovery fund plan as a “defining moment for the European project”.
If it goes badly, the EU may fail to reverse the Union’s Covid-19 8% decline in GDP, and there won’t be enough funding for ambitious member state plans like the programme of Ireland’s historic new coalition government.
In fairness, the coalition programme for government takes into account the current logjam in EU decision making, which had ground to a halt even before Covid-19 arrived.
The transition period until the next CAP (the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy) is agreed (an outcome which could be speeded up by tomorrow’s EU meeting going well) is to be used to pilot an agri-environment scheme, supported by additional Irish funding, according to the coalition’s government programme.
That will enable some progress to be made while things are held up in the EU, and signifies the new government’s intention to drive on without delay,
This pilot will inform the shape of a flagship agri-environment scheme, funded by the next CAP, which will be a key part of rewarding farmers for adapting to more sustainable methods.
Such methods will in turn be key elements of farming’s contribution to a 7% per annum average reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030, and achieving net zero emissions by 2050.
This is a central plank of the new programme for government, and EU funding will be needed to live up to the programme commitment of “ensuring no sector of society or community is left behind in the movement to a low carbon future”.
The coalition wants the new agri-environment scheme complemented by an ambitious eco-scheme under Pillar 1 of the CAP, rewarding farmers who deliver enhanced environmental performance.
It will be a new but presumably expanded form of the greening payment of over €360 million per year, for which up to now only arable farmers had specific obligations in terms of the number of crops and the amount of ecological focus on the farm.
Bearing in mind delays, that could be a couple of years away, before CAP reform ushers in a much changed policy in line with the EU Green Deal.
Ireland will seek a new cap on basic payments.
Then, of course, there is Brexit, and the possibility of an additional economic shock at the end of this year due to no EU-UK trade deal agreement.
At least there was a good omen from that quarter, with no major setbacks at Monday’s UK-EU summit.
Nevertheless, Ireland’s new coalition will have to embark on its programme for government while looking over its shoulder “to protect the island of Ireland from the worst effects of Brexit as we develop a new relationship with the UK.”
With Covid-19 also preoccupying the prospective government partners (presumably their representatives all had to pass Covid-19 tests before spending long hours together in government formation talks), they deserve commendation for putting their plan together, which must now be voted on by members of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Green Party, whose verdict will be announced on Friday, June 26. If it is passed, Micheál Martin of Fianna Fáil will be elected Taoiseach Saturday or Monday, June 27 or 29.
He would lead a government with a majority in the Dáil and Seanad, which improves its chance of lasting until spring 2025 while introducing radical policies.
A majority could transform government, compared to the relatively ineffective outgoing administration, which left a record high number of 320 Bills still in the legislative process last February.
Much more will be known after the first 100 days of government, in which the Climate Action Bill will be introduced alongside a newly established Climate Action Council. The Bill will define how five-year carbon budgets will be set, and how every sector will contribute.
But, until then, plans for agriculture are not radical.
They include an ambitious afforestation plan with improved farmer incentives; transforming the scale of organic farming; and building on Ireland’s food production carbon efficiency through maximum delivery of measures identified by Teagasc.
Built in will be reduction of artificial nitrogen fertiliser, as part of the environmental protection and reversing biodiversity decline emphasis in a new Foodwise 2025 strategy.
That means working with farmers to ensure sustainable use of the nitrates derogation, a national liming programme, more protected urea and clover and low emission slurry spreading.
The direction will definitely be green, or even Green, but that is not new.