John Downing: Noisy neighbours have always been a nuisance in Brussels but we'll miss them

European Commissioner Phil Hogan. Photo: Reuters
European Commissioner Phil Hogan. Photo: Reuters
John Downing

John Downing

We'll start again with a scarce piece of Brexit news. Ireland will not miss the UK when it comes to framing EU farm policy.

Over 45 years of joint membership, our two nations have shared many reservations about certain EU policies, notably on taxation and social policy which might scare off international investment.

But when it came to farm policy, the UK was a pain in the neck, always fighting against increased funding, and still clinging to its post-1945 cheap food policy, where the EU was focused on securing continuity of supply after horrific shortages in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

But the immediate bad news is that Ireland will be among the nations who most miss the €12bn per year in UK contributions to the EU Common Agriculture Policy. And we will wince at the prospect of disruption to food exports to Britain worth some €5bn per year for Ireland.

Today we are four weeks and three days away from 'B-Day' on March 29. Yes, anything could still happen, but we must also work on the assumption that Brexit will go ahead - and it could be very rough indeed for Irish food sales.

So, we pose three key questions: 1. How rough will it be? 2. Who can help? 3. What is the likely extent of such help?

The first answer comes via Agriculture Minister Michael Creed, who has stressed that even a benign Brexit result will not be as good as the UK staying with the EU, giving us tariff-free trade.

He also stresses that we are left guessing until the UK announces what kind of tariff regime it will adopt for food products.

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But a worst-case scenario could see some €1.7bn being slapped on those €5bn Irish exports if it adopted the 70pc tariff on beef; 49pc on dairy and 22pc on pigmeat. That would be very disruptive stuff indeed, leading to some dark days on Irish farms.

Help of some kind would undoubtedly come from the Irish State and the EU. Brussels has already signalled that it will raise the ceiling for permitted State aid.

But the Agriculture Minister told this writer at the start of this year that he has been working on Ireland's case for special support for some time. He has also approached EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan on the issue for preliminary soundings.

All of that brings us to trying to figure out the extent of EU support we could expect. You don't have to be a top-flight agronomist to guess that we will get nothing like €1.7bn in additional aid per year.

In Dublin the guesstimate is around "several hundred million". In Brussels not too many people are prepared to get into such a guessing game at this stage for some well-founded reasons, not least the sharp reactions of commodity traders who would want to be ahead of farmers in the aid queue.

There is an appreciation that Ireland's UK market exposure is especially bad, and there are a range of EU aid tools. There are traditional ones like intervention and aids to private storage and exceptional aid under the CAP's Single Common Market Organisation regulation.

In 2016, Commissioner Hogan had to face a Russian trade embargo which deprived former Eastern Bloc states' farmers of €5.3bn in income. Recently it was estimated they received a cumulative €1.7bn in aid.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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