Darragh McCullough: Will our new cohort of MEPs have the courage to halt the European farm payments gravy train?

Darragh McCullough pictured on his farm in Stamullen, Co. Meath. Picture credit; Damien Eagers / INM
Darragh McCullough pictured on his farm in Stamullen, Co. Meath. Picture credit; Damien Eagers / INM
Centre of power: The next European Parliament faces big decisions on the direction of CAP under post-2020 reform proposals
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

What will our newly elected MEPs want for farmers in the next EU parliament?

Hopefully they'll be more ambitious than the last batch when it comes to voting records on farming issues.

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The level of ducking and diving by the Sinn Féin representatives - Matt Carthy, Lynn Boylan and Liadh Ní Riada - was just shocking.

Out of a sample of nine parliamentary votes on issues crucial to farming, the three Shinners abstained or just didn't bother to show up for more than 50pc of the counts.

These were big issues for rural Ireland like live exports, antibiotic use in animals, commodity market controls, trade deals and glyphosate.

At least Nessa Childers had the courage of her convictions to make her votes count, even if wasn't the way farmers would've liked.

The Achilles heel of the EU is the fact that so much business goes on that never makes the headlines back here.

In some ways that's a good thing because it minimises the parish pump effect that dogs every decision requiring a national vision on this island.

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But the flip side is that we have 11 people (possibly 13 if/when Brexit finally kicks in) representing the whole country often flying under the radar on issues that determine the flow of billions of euro and the lives of hundreds of millions of Europe's citizens.

It's anyone's guess how the new cohort of MEPs will play out the reform of the next CAP budget that will dictate how over €10bn will be spent in rural Ireland over the next seven years.

During his campaign to retain his seat, Luke Ming Flanagan got plenty of mileage out of how much money he had managed to steer west of the Shannon since the last CAP reform.

Wealth transfer

He was referring to the ongoing flattening of EU farm payments which has resulted in over €100m in CAP money being transferred from farmers in the eastern and southern regions to areas where the entitlement payments have been always lower.

It is a bit rich for him to claim credit for this, but it is worth considering the scale of the wealth transfer that has taken place by a simple stroke of a pen.

The squabbling over who gets what has already got going ahead of the next CAP reform process. But farmers are in danger of missing the big picture and a great opportunity to get ahead of the game if they focus on the traditional battle-lines and propaganda.

Capping payments per individual has proven to be a pointless political exercise. The biggest recipients invariably have enough heirs and entities to get in under any wire.

Guff about the payments ensuring Europe doesn't go hungry are laughable in this era of obesity epidemics.

Those who continue to campaign for the reintroduction of coupled payments willingly ignore this reality and the fact that Joe Public will want to see their taxes used to reduce emissions rather than maintain or drive them up.

Trying to target payments at 'active farmers' to ensure that as little as possible leaks into hobby farmers' pockets is another impossible task.

Defining what constitutes an active farmer is like punching wool - there is no dictionary definition that will do the job.

The convergence of payments is further confirmation that there is no real basis for the subsidy that any individual currently gets for their farming activity, other than some muddled formula that linked output to area in decades gone by.

It's all part of the reason why CAP payments have turned into a terrible waste of taxpayers' money, with most of it being sucked into inflated land rental and input costs.

An undefinable amount ends up subsidising beef processors' billion euro businesses. Don't get me started on the €100m handout to the beef sector announced last week.

Instead of fighting amongst ourselves over who gets most out of CAP, farmers should be looking to completely reboot the payments so that they flow to those who are implementing environmental measures.

In simple terms it would be a giant REPS scheme for the whole country. It could be structured in a way that a farmer who has been receiving, say, €10,000 will still have the opportunity to earn the same amount if he is able generate a series of positive environmental measures.

It's not really that revolutionary but it actually could be. Of course we'd need a few courageous MEPs that were prepared to actually use their votes for this to happen.

Don't hold your breaths.

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