Farm Ireland

Friday 24 November 2017

Euro engagement critical says ICOS' man in Brussels

Declan O'Brien

Declan O'Brien

There is a view that happenings in Brussels have rarely been as important for Irish farmers. Between now and 2013 the latest round of CAP reform negotiations will be played out, mainly in the Belgian capital, setting not only the level farm payments but also the regulatory framework farmers will have to comply with up to 2020 and beyond.

The process will provoke lobbying on a grand scale, with the activities of the farm organisations dominating the scene from an Irish farmers', and media, perspective.

However, ICOS also aims to get in on the act and not just from a profile point of view. In recent months the organisation has revamped its Brussels operation, with a view to focusing its activities to reflect the changes happening within EU institutions.

Representing the co-operative body in Europe is Conor Mulvihill. A native of Meanus, Co Limerick, Mr Mulvihill is from a farming background.

He took up the reins in Brussels for ICOS in the last year and has been a busy man since. While CAP has hogged the limelight of late, Mr Mulvihill points out that there has been a raft of issues, all of which are critically important for Irish farming.

"Milk quotas, food labelling, the Mercosur talks, animal transport regulations and market supports, these are big issues for ICOS members," Mr Mulvihill explains.

They are important for farmers as well. However, Mr Mulvihill is quick to clarify that ICOS is an industry organisation and that, as such, its focus is always on the interests of its member co-ops.

"We have to delineate ourselves from the farm bodies. We are not here to represent farmers at an individual level but to represent the co-op movement and its members as a whole. Sometimes our objectives on a given issue overlap, but that may not always be the case."

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One area where farmer and industry positions did overlap earlier this year was in getting MEPs to recognise the value of European agriculture to environmental sustainability.

ICOS successfully lobbied MEPs to vote down proposals which would have resulted in a unilateral 50pc increase in Ireland's carbon reduction target.

"Such proposals, had they gone through, would have put an inordinate burden on our co-operative agri-food industry and could have encouraged the transfer of primary production outside of Europe to regions where sustainable and environmentally-friendly farming methods are not as widely practised."

The issue of milk contracts was another area in which ICOS has been active this year. Early proposals on the contract mechanism would have discriminated against the co-op system of dairy ownership in Ireland.

"We lobbied strongly to ensure that our industry had flexibility in dealing with the contracts issue. Now, the imposition of contracts is on a voluntary basis only and is between the farmer and his co-op," Mr Mulvihill says.


A key plank of ICOS lobbying strategy is its membership of COPA COGECA, the European umbrella farmer/co-op representative body. While IFA is a member of the COPA arm, ICOS is represented in COGECA.

This is important as it gives ICOS linkages throughout Europe, Mr Mulvihill says.

"With any policy change which comes up for discussion, ICOS has to identify its strategic objective. We then go to the likes of the Danish and Dutch, our traditional allies in dairy policy, for example, to form alliances and push for a particular outcome as lobbying unilaterally rarely delivers results."

Innovation and sustainability are two areas in which ICOS aims to become more involved and seeks to push the interests of co-op members.

He points out that the Dutch dairy Friesland Campina has a sustainability drive based on their cows being grass fed, even though they spend just one third of the year grazing naturally for only six hours a day to attain the sustainably grass-fed certification.

Mr Mulvihill believes Ireland is perfectly placed to capitalise on the real and natural competitive advantages our grass-based dairy and beef systems provide.

"The objective is to harvest the commercial advantages of sustainability while making sure farmers and their co-ops are not overburdened with bureaucracy."

Similarly, he says ICOS will assist co-ops to access funding directly from Brussels for innovation and real product development.

This money is available from Commissioner Maire Geoghegan Quinn's section of the commission but has traditionally been funnelled through Teagasc and the universities.

Mr Mulvihill is convinced that greater engagement with Brussels is essential for the farm sector as whole.

"It is imperative we do not view the EU legislative process as occurring in a vacuum. We have to remain closely engaged with the process and make sure our voice and opinion is heard."

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