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Thursday 27 April 2017

Opinion: Hogan takes a leaf from the MacSharry book on CAP refrom

Downing on politics

Ray MacSharry. Photo: Mark Condren
Ray MacSharry. Photo: Mark Condren
John Downing

John Downing

It took Ray MacSharry 50 hours of marathon negotiating in May 1992 to get the 12 EU Member States to agree a fundamental shift in the thrust of the Common Agriculture Policy.

Now, a quarter of a century later, another Irish EU Agriculture Commissioner, Phil Hogan, has taken the first tentative steps on another journey to make very basic changes to the European Union's oldest and most complete policy.

There are similarities between the two Irish politicians. Both are straight talkers who have not shrunk from tough battles.

MacSharry drove through tough Budgets in 1987 and 1988 which are credited with beginning to fix the crocked Irish economy. Phil Hogan's name was closely linked with the local property tax and domestic water charges.

The Common Agriculture Policy has been central to the various manifestations of the EU since 1962. It was the product of the chaos of the immediate post-World War II era.

But from as early as 1968, under another trailblazing Agriculture Commissioner, Sicco Mansholt of Netherlands, there were attempts to rein it in. Mansholt's aim was to reduce the numbers working in farming and amalgamate holdings.

A much diluted version of the Mansholt blueprint was adopted just before Ireland joined in 1972 and a trend of change was set for future decades. The CAP had some serious image problems in the 1980s with 'butter mountains' and 'wine lakes', and this drove moves towards curbing production and making more direct payments to farmers.

MacSharry's moves, announced in 1991, took radical steps towards decoupling farm incomes from production. It took some political will to drive it through at those talks - stretched over three days in May 1992 - and it started a trend echoed in all CAP changes ever since.

The CAP has never been far from Britain's battles about how much it pays to the EU, and the policy is seen as a key reason why it has been a significant net contributor since joining alongside Ireland and Denmark in 1973. Britain's departure and the loss of some €10bn per year after 2020 is driving Commissioner Hogan's latest reform gambit.

There have been many changes since MacSharry's days. A huge notable trend has been the continued reduction in the relative size of the CAP compared with a slow but steady expansion of other EU policies.

CAP was 70pc of the EU budget in 1980; was still 60pc in MacSharry's day in 1990; it fell to 51pc in 2000, and today stands at 37pc. Critics argue that it is still too big and there are continual challenges and arguments about its efficiency.

Hogan's first move has been to open a three-month consultation and it is clear that the upcoming negotiations will be long and tough. They will also totally enmesh with Brexit negotiations. It is unlikely that Commissioner Hogan will get to finish the job before his five-year term ends in autumn 2019.

Irish farmers are also deeply suspicious about the early signs emanating from Brussels. There will be far more emphasis upon environmental issues. But the real worrying trend is the suggestion that farmers should insure against income shocks rather than relying upon Brussels emergency aid to help in times of crisis.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent


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