Farm Ireland

Monday 18 December 2017

An eye-opening trip to the EU's nerve centre

Phil Hogan in the European Parliament in Brussels.
Phil Hogan in the European Parliament in Brussels.
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

PRESS trips are usually well chaperoned affairs. Once you get to the airport, somebody else takes charge. The downside of this is that you can become quite passive.

I recently travelled on a press trip to Brussels and on this occasion, DG Agri, which is responsible for EU agriculture and rural development policy, had booked our flights and accommodation for its annual CAP briefing. The transfers from the airport, however, were up to ourselves.

The event brought together around 100 agri-journalists and its aim was to improve our understanding of what is happening in the CAP across the EU, which now has a population of over 500m across 28 member states.

I flew from Dublin to Brussels on the only flight that day, at 6.40am, and, with nothing formal until 4pm, I had some free time beforehand so I had arranged to meet three of our Members of European Parliament, Matt Carthy, Marian Harkin and Mairéad McGuinness. Incidentally, some other journalists were surprised at the accessibility of our MEPs.

I had been to Brussels once before many moons ago and had no memory of what the EU was like on the ground. Was it located in one building or many and how far apart are they?

The reality of this hit home when one of the MEPs I was meeting asked beforehand if I was visiting the Parliament or the Commission. Doh! What does that mean?

Is it like the distance from the RDS to the zoo or, in mart-speak, from the bullock ring to the heifer ring?

I discovered most Parliamentary activities take place in the Espace Léopold, a complex of buildings, the oldest of which is the Paul-Henri Spaak and houses the familiar debating chamber, while the connected Altiero Spinelli is the largest and houses many of the offices of the 751 Members.

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The Commission is spread out over 60 buildings but its headquarters is in La Berlaymont.

Anyway, it turns out that they are about 1km apart.Given the forecasted snow I had intended to take a taxi from the airport to the Parliament, but it was mild when we landed and, since there was nowhere I had to be for a couple of hours, decided to be a bit adventurous and take public transport.

There were signs for bus and train, in French and Dutch. English is widely understood in Brussels but, to my surprise, I found it is not often used on signage.

On the bus sign, it said Brussels-Luxembourg. A vision of being swept off on a non-stop journey to a city over 200km away flashed through my mind.

Wherever I wanted to go, it was not there anyway. (I had taken this to mean a service Brussels to Luxembourg. But Brussels-Luxembourg is the name of the station at Espace Léopold.)

Meantime, I was happily chugging away on a suburban train. I figured that Gare Central would be a good place to start so I got off there. I then worked out what bus I needed but couldn't find the bus-stop. So I headed off on off on foot in the right general direction.

After a bit of meandering, I got there and, outside of my appointments, spent a useful few hours in the visitor centre.

Among the things I learned there was the scale of the humanitarian work the EU does outside its borders that we don't hear much about. I also observed seemingly never-ending streams of smartly-dressed people going industriously about their business.

Dinner that evening was followed by the presentation of young agri-journalist awards and it struck me that most entries in the shake-up were about something they experienced in another country.


The view at our table was that there is a lot of interest in this type of coverage in agriculture.

We want to know what people are doing elsewhere when it is written by someone with the same starting point as ourselves, as this gives us context.

There was also a lot of chat about the Greek elections and the growth in popularity of both far right and far left, politics within the Union.

First thing next morning we were briefed by the new EU agriculture commissioner, our own Big Phil.

This was the first time that most of the assembled press would have seen him in action and he made a good impression. Particularly when he said the objectives for his term in office include the simplification of the CAP and ensuring that the primary producers gets a fair share of the final price.

As for his replies, someone said "there were some platitudes but no more than you'd expect from any politician."

I thought myself that he handled well a question about Moldova, saying he was not yet up to speed on the country. Sure, he was only 90 days in the job.

Nobody could expect him to know much about a little country of 3.5m people, the poorest in Europe, bordered on three sides by Ukraine. It demonstrated in elections last November that it wants to go down the European parliamentary route.

We also had a very interesting presentation by DG Agri director Pierre Bascou about how the CAP is going to be implemented in the period up to 2020.

He emphasised that member states had quite a degree of flexibility in drawing up their programmes.

For example, while an average of 10pc of payments will be coupled, this ranges from .2pc in Ireland (for protein crops) up to 57pc in Malta.

We headed back that evening and, having got the hang of the public transport, I had no difficulty in getting to the airport.

I arrived home shortly after midnight, wrecked but happy to have gone, happy to be back.

I have a better understanding of the enormity of the challenges in making the EU function and renewed respect for those who work there. And I feel I'd be able to make out OK if I was ever back there again.

Indo Farming