UP to 300,000 Irish farmers stand to lose out from a move to distribute Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) funds on a fairer basis in the future.
The EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos told TDs in Dublin yesterday that while direct payments to farmers would be a non-negotiable element of the CAP, a more equitable method of distributing funds across all 27 EU member states would have to be devised in the review of its future.
Mr Ciolos said the historical system of paying farmers on the basis of how much food they used to produce 10 years ago -- the current system which Ireland wants continued -- cannot be maintained into the future, as it was too difficult to justify it to taxpayers.
The new member states in eastern Europe were not even in the EU when the system of basing payments on production levels between 2000 and 2002 was devised, so it would not be fair to have payments based on historical differences, as it could create a two-tier Europe that would undermine the credibility of the CAP, he told the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture.
When asked if this inevitably meant Ireland would get less, given this country had done well out of CAP in the past (with direct payments per hectare to Irish farmers well above the EU average), Mr Ciolos said it depended on the final EU budget for agriculture from 2013, which has not yet been decided.
"But a more balanced partition means also this idea, to take some money from the pot to give to another," he said at a press conference in Government Buildings.
He also said there would have to be a gradual transition towards a new payment system as he wanted evolution rather than revolution.
"It's not my intention to propose a revolution and destabilise some regions," he said.
Mr Ciolos, who is from Romania, said that he would approach CAP reform as a European first, and his aim was not to solve the problems of new member states but to create a credible policy for all of Europe.
Ireland gets €1.5bn a year in CAP funds from the EU and Agriculture Minister Brendan Smith and opposition politicians stressed the importance of maintaining these payments at a time of economic difficulty.
Mr Ciolos said that his main objectives for CAP reform were to ensure strong, sustainable food production in Europe that would maintain the social fabric and landscape of rural areas.
Food security would be one of the biggest challenges as global food demand was set to rise by 50pc in the next 20 years, and the EU could not rely on imports.
The agrifood sector was the main industry in Europe based both on employment and turnover, and this was based on having strong agriculture and a strong CAP with direct payments to farmers crucial in this, he said.