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Defending CAP is key, says McGuinness

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Mairead McGuinness MEP

Mairead McGuinness MEP

Mairead McGuinness MEP

The opening salvos in the EU's post-Brexit budget battle have been fired, with farmers gearing up to defend their slice of the pie.

MEP Mairead McGuinness has said that "defending the budget" for agriculture will be "key" when new EU spending talks kick off this spring.

But the Fine Gael MEP (inset) downplayed the prospect of "radical" cuts to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget post-Brexit.

Her comments come after the Taoiseach committed to boost Ireland's EU budget contribution (as long as CAP and other spending is ring-fenced), which she said was "timely and welcome - as is his defence of the CAP".

"Ireland is now a net contributor to the EU budget. We continue to draw down considerable money from the budget, mainly through the CAP," Ms McGuinness told the Farming Independent.

The European Commission is putting the pressure on EU leaders to stump up more money for the post-2020 budget, which will be discussed at a summit on February 23.

EU budget commissioner Günther Oettinger says Brexit will leave a €14bn/year revenue gap, while new priorities, such as defence and research, will require an extra €10bn.

To plug that €24bn gap, Mr Oettinger wants a mixture of savings and revenue raising - with EU officials putting it at around €9bn in cuts and €15bn in new money.

Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said this month that he is not in favour of drastic cuts to the budget, including agriculture, calling it a "false analysis" that cuts alone would solve the EU's post-Brexit woes.

Agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan, who has the ear of both Juncker and Oettinger, called again last week for EU countries, "whose ultimate responsibility it is", to pay more into the EU budget.

"Germany can ensure that there is a budget which can help farmers to continue to meet the challenges of agricultural production, climate change and the need to maintain your competitive edge," he told participants at Germany's annual Green Week event.

Germany's two potential coalition partners in talks to form the next government there have indicated their willingness to boost EU budget contributions, but the Netherlands and other budget hawks (Denmark, Finland) are against it. There are fears, meanwhile, that France has upended its traditional support for the CAP, following President Emmanuel Macron's call last year to lift the "taboo" on questioning the policy, and a recent leaked French government note calling for "deep reform" of the CAP.

But Ms McGuinness, who is also a European Parliament vice-president, said recent fears that France is getting ready to sideline its farmers and slash the CAP budget were unfounded.

"Macron's comments on CAP are not, in my view, radically different from the traditional French support for agriculture," Ms McGuinness said.

"A proposal is expected from the Commission in June - we have yet to see how radical it will be."

UK will have to pay price for 'good deal'

Britain will pay the price for an ambitious post-Brexit trade deal, MEP Mairead McGuinness has said.

"A third country, which the UK will become, cannot enjoy the benefits of the EU without carrying the responsibilities of membership," Ms McGuinness told the Farming Independent.

"If the UK wants a good deal as a third country, there will be a price to be paid for that."

Her comments echo those by French president Emmanuel Macron, who told the BBC at the weekend that although the UK could hope for a "special" trade deal, it will not get full access to the bloc's single market without paying into the budget and accepting EU court rulings.

Ms McGuinness said the details of the future trade deal will be "crucial" for Ireland. The UK pledged during a first phase of talks that there would be no hard border and that north-south cooperation would continue, even in the event that no Brexit deal is struck.

That deal is now being written into law, but how it operates in practice will depend on whether the UK continues to mirror EU rules post-Brexit, or goes its own way.

Ms McGuinness pointed to health and consumer protection as an example, saying UK regulatory divergence would disturb supply chains and be "extremely damaging to citizens".

"Ireland wants a close trading relationship with the UK, which insists it is leaving the single market and customs union," Ms McGuinness warned.

"We know the consequences if they continue down that path; I'm not sure that the UK does."

There are fears that Ireland will lose importance as the trade talks wear on, with EU governments putting their interests first and the UK already starting to work its bilateral alliances.

"Support is a two-way street. Ireland is working with our EU colleagues to understand their concerns around Brexit, in the same way as Ireland's issues around Brexit are being taken on board by our counterparts," Ms McGuinness said.

"The issue of the border and the peace process is a top priority."

Talks on trade are expected to begin in March, after the EU agrees a new negotiating mandate.

Negotiations are to begin with the UK next month on a short transition period.

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