Phil Hogan, European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, this week reassured farmers across the EU that direct payments would continue under a reformed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) agreement. These payments are worth about €1.2bn to Irish farmers each year and there have been fears of a post-Brexit shortfall in the EU's €56bn agriculture budget. Hogan said he is “determined to maintain basic income support and an effective safety net through a system of direct payments”, but what will the reformed CAP look like and what will it mean to Irish farmers?
The current system has been widely criticised in both farming and non-farming circles for benefiting the rich, penalising the poor and for encouraging large-scale industrial practises that have negative social and ecological impacts. Numerous farming sectors within Ireland are struggling, from tillage farmers who endured another loss-making year to debt-straddled dairy farmers and meat producers who seem trapped in a system that denies them flexibility or fair play. While many will welcome the news of continued assistance, which to be fair is keeping most farmers afloat, there will be a degree of resignation about where the majority of this cash ends up.
Luckily farmers do have a chance to make their voices heard. A 12-week public consultation on CAP reform opened on February 2nd and will remain open until May 2nd. Ostensibly the focus is on simplifying and modernising CAP, but any farmer with issues about the distribution of funding can make their complaint known to officials by logging onto the consultations webpage. A detailed questionnaire will offer them the chance to vent their spleen. Every opinion is taken into consideration so it is very important that all situations are covered by submissions. Not submitting a comment would be the same as not exercising your voting rights. We might complain later if nobody listens, but now is our chance to have our say.
Meanwhile, we must wait and see. There is not much to be gleaned from the public utterances of Mr Hogan, as he is much too clever to reveal his true intentions. The questions we must keep in mind are, how much power he will have over the final document, and how will its intent be translated by Irish Department of Agriculture officials when they sit down to tally out the funds? At least if European administrators are aware of issues we have had, for one example, regarding lack of compensation for Natura and hen harrier designations, or late delivery of Glas payments for another, they can take account of this.
Given the discussion yesterday in Brussels regarding LULUCF, which unveiled forthcoming EU strategies for dealing with climate change, we can be sure that much of the new CAP will be about enhancing agriculture's ambition for emissions reductions. Commissioner Rung-Metzger pointed out yesterday that the administration of funding is a national state issue and not the concern of the Commission. Nevertheless, a system of checks and balances for this process would be a useful suggestion to make and would have the potential to bring a sense of fairness to CAP's delivery in Ireland.