EU’s international aid crusade doesn’t augur well for farmers

When European heads of state meet this weekend to decide the EU’s new climate and energy policy framework, Ireland will have to fight very hard to win any concessions for our agriculture.

EU agricultural policy expert Alan Matthews has highlighted we are a special case, and would find it 50% harder than any other EU member state to rein in our agricultural emissions as part of whatever overall 2030 emissions target emerges from this weekend’s European Council. There are signs other member states won’t be sympathetic to Ireland’s plight.

It may be left up to the European Commission to propose how food production can be sustainably intensified in the EU, while optimising greenhouse gas mitigation and sequestration.

There may not be much sympathy either in the European Commission, which has lately signalled it won’t do any special favours for the EU food and agriculture sector.

Instead, it seems to have dealt the sector a severe blow with an amended EU budget proposal for 2015, significantly reducing the amount of money available for further emergency funds to help cover the costs of the Russian food import bans — and any other crises which may arise.

The Commission has proposed diverting “spare” CAP money — which came from spending errors and ‘superlevy’ fines — away from agriculture, and towards humanitarian and development aid.

As a result, the EU could run out of money for further agriculture crisis responses in the coming 12 months. The €400 million plus annual crisis fund made up of deductions from farmers’ single payments may be spent by Brussels for years (instead of the intended reimbursement to farmers in non-crisis years).

The high cost to the EU of its sanctions against Russia are now coming home to roost, when the cost of compensating its food and farm sector is added to its pledges to help Ukraine, Syria and Africa (with its fight against Ebola).

Together, these demands have stretched the EU budget to breaking point.

There’s another reason also for Brussels to go hard on farmers and the food industry — the apparently fraudulent or disproportionate claims which have led the EU to temporarily suspend an emergency fruit and vegetable scheme, and indefinitely suspend the cheese segment of a dairy Private Storage Aids measure.

The latest budget proposals, and perhaps this weekend’s climate and energy decisions, offer heads of states an opportunity to rap the food and farm sector on the knuckles for abusing the fruit and vegetable and cheese schemes, to which scarce EU funds had been allocated as part of the response to the Russian ban on EU foods.

EU farmers and agriculture co-ops have urged MEPs not to approve the proposals to slash agriculture spending in the 2015 EU budget.

Hopefully, Ireland won’t have to depend on MEPs to veto any damage to our agriculture in this weekend’s climate and energy decisions.

But at the moment, MEPs look like the sector’s only friends in time of need.

The EU pigmeat sector is the latest to line up for help from Brussels.

It had been held up as an example of how an industry can ride out the Russian export restrictions, but a plunge in prices since August has endangered the sector.

Prices have plummeted by over 50% for some agriculture products as a result of the Russian ban.

Normally 29% of EU fruit and vegetable exports are sent to Russia, 24% of pigmeat exports, and 33% of cheese exports.

Despite this, Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos has been overruled by his fellow Commissioners in budget decisions.

If the budget proposal continues unamended through the EU decision making process, the EU has only €90m left in the coming year for emergency aid in the farming sector, having already spent an estimated €344m of the 2015 Crisis Reserve of €433 million.

It seems that sentiment in Brussels is turning away from supporting the food and agriculture sector, to international causes.

That does not bode well for Irish agriculture, most exposed of all to this weekend’s climate and energy decisions by heads of state.


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