Friday 15 December 2017

MEPs and EU Commission can still rain on Coveney's CAP 'victory'

Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney wasn't hiding his light under a bushel this week.

He is the current president of the EU's Council of Agricultural Ministers that settled on a package of reforms for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in the small hours of yesterday morning.

Minister Coveney claimed that it was difficult to over-estimate the scale of what he described as a "watershed moment". To be fair, getting 25 of the 27-strong agriculture council – Slovakia and Slovenia bailed out – to agree to a package was no easy task.

But the reality of the tortuous process that EU policy making has become means that this week's agreement is just one step closer to a final deal that won't be signed off on before June.

Minister Coveney needs to play a careful political game over the coming months if he is to win over the 754 MEPs who, for the first time ever have a veto on this process.

The reality is that while it was important to agree a framework this week, that's all it remains for the time being – a framework.

Between now and June, this 1,000 page document will be kicked around Brussels in a marathon series of 30 trilogue meetings between three crucial players – the Council of Ministers, the EU Commission and the EU Parliament.

It's politics at its best and worst.

It's the same reason that there is such an absence of hard figures in the text that emerged this week. It is too early for seasoned negotiators to be offering up hostages to fortune.

Instead, it focuses on outlining the flexibility for each Member State to implement the rules in a way that suits their own situations.

This is a very watered down version of what the Commission originally proposed.

For example, in Ireland's case, the Commission wanted €280m of the €1.5bn that will come in here every year in farm and rural development subsidies to be redistributed to those receiving least.

They also wanted close to €350m to be linked to environmental measures that farmers would have to undertake to receive a third of their payments.

Some estimates suggest the flexibility in the current framework allows Ireland to limit the redistribution to just €74m.

There also appears be a lot of leeway in terms of how much needs to be actually carried out by farmers to qualify for the environmental payments.

It's part of the reason that the Commission, led by the Romanian commissioner, Dacian Ciolos, simply stated the agreement was unacceptable.

He has some powerful friends in the EU Parliament, where many MEPs are appalled at how much of the €55bn of taxpayers' money is spent on farming every year.

They will continue to push for what they see as a fairer and more environmentally friendly CAP.

If it is two against one – the Commission and MEPs on one side and the Council on the other – the Council will lose, and the hard won agreement this week will fall by the wayside.

Back at farm level here, a divisive debate is emerging. Many of the country's smallest farmers are waking up to the fact that Europe wants to give them more money.

But the farm organisations that are supposedly representing them, along with Minister Coveney, have managed to limit the scope for change to the absolute minimum so far. The reality is that the overall budget has been cut by 3pc. That immediately knocks about €35m off the total pot that Irish farmers will get.

There is also another 6pc being sliced off to cater for hard luck cases – namely a crisis fund, a national reserve and a young farmers fund.

So everybody is €111m, or 9pc, down before a ball has been kicked. How much Irish farmers with payments of over the national average of €9,000 will lose on top of this is still anybody's guess.

But you can be sure that this week's 'victory' for the Irish administration is just the first of many battles in a very long war.

Irish Independent

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