Farmers have beef with trade deal but Taoiseach admits we can't halt move
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has admitted that Ireland alone cannot block a new EU trade deal that threatens to devastate the Irish beef industry - and has not ruled out ultimately backing the plan.
Irish farmers - already reeling from Brexit uncertainty - say the EU-Mercosur deal paves the way for an increase in imports of cheaper beef from South America and could cost them as much as €750m.
But Mr Varadkar said last night that an economic assessment would be carried out to determine if Ireland would back the deal, insisting there is "a long way to go" before it is ratified.
The IFA's Joe Healy said the deal was "reckless and wrong" and marked the lowest point of Phil Hogan's term as EU agriculture commissioner.
Mr Hogan's prospects of a second term as Ireland's commissioner are now uncertain as Mr Varadkar declined three times to say if he would reappoint his Fine Gael colleague.
The Taoiseach said only that he would make a decision once the identity of the next European Commission president was resolved.
Mr Varadkar admitted the deal would have a negative impact on beef farming, but said it would benefit other sectors and did not rule out Ireland ultimately supporting it when it comes before the EU trade council, where a vote is at least two years away.
"If it has a positive impact well then, we'll be minded to vote for it," he said, while noting that Ireland cannot stop the deal without a blocking minority.
"We'll have to do an economic assessment on the deal in the round. It appears that it may be good for dairy, good for the drinks industry, good for SMEs and good for the services sector.
"It also appears or it's rather very evident that it will be bad for the beef sector so we'll have to do an economic assessment, see how it impacts on the Irish economy in the round, on our economy and on jobs and if it's bad for Ireland then we'll vote against it."
Mr Varadkar said that Ireland was a trading country with competitive industries and that it tends to do "very well out of trade deals", citing the benefits to the beef industry from the EU-Japan deal.
Amid dire warnings from Irish farming organisations about the impact of the deal in years to come, Mr Healy said: "Europe is over 100pc self-sufficient in beef as it is. If Brexit goes wrong - and that's more likely than it ever was - and if WTO rules apply, well then, the EU could be 116pc self-sufficient for beef if the UK isn't part of the market."
Fianna Fáil agriculture spokesman Charlie McConalogue accused the Government of failing to "properly stand up for Irish farmers". He said the Taoiseach and Agriculture Minister Michael Creed need to be clear that the deal cannot be signed-off until Brexit is resolved.
"They need to make crystal clear to their European colleagues that the beef offering that's part of the deal is simply too much and will have a massive impact on the beef sector in Ireland," he said.
Fianna Fáil TD Jackie Cahill, a former ICMSA president, said it would be "wrong" for the Government to reappoint Mr Hogan. "He has done absolutely nothing to protect the Irish farmer, so he wouldn't be a loss," he said.
A Fianna Fáil source said Mr Hogan had put his own future and a possible move to a different portfolio in the commission before Irish interests.
"He'll get plenty of kudos in the commission for this, but it's damaging deal for Ireland," they said.
A Government source also acknowledged that Mr Hogan was "central" to the deal and noted that the former Fine Gael minister had "his eye on the trade portfolio" if reappointed to the commission. A source close to Mr Hogan "flatly rejected" those assertions last night.
The commissioner has also strongly defended his role in the deal, insisting he had spent several months trying to mitigate the potential damage to the beef sector and pointing out that the EU had gained from the deal when it comes to exports of an additional 30,000 tonnes of cheese and 10,000 tonnes of skimmed milk powder. He has also pointed to a €1bn fund to aid any farmers affected by market disturbance after the deal takes effect, as well as extra safeguards to prevent any surge of products from Mercosur countries.
But Irish hopes of blocking the deal at the Trade Council with the support of a minority of EU allies suffered a blow when French President Emmanuel Macron backed it. Farmers had hoped that France, a major EU player with a strong farm lobby, might oppose the deal.
But Mr Macron welcomed provisions protecting European geographical origin certification for food products and limiting Mercosur exports of sugar and beef.
"I consider that this agreement, at this stage, is a good one given that the demands that we made have all been taken into account by the negotiators," he said.
Elsewhere, the new bishop of Cork and Ross said he was "very concerned" about the livelihoods of beef farmers following the announcement of the deal.
Bishop Fintan Gavin said it was "a big concern" and came on the back of Brexit, which was also "not good news" for farmers. His diocese is predominantly rural.