Wednesday 24 July 2019

John Downing: 'Farmers are angry over Mercosur - and the Fine Gael TDs fear the fallout'

  

Greetings: Newly appointed US Ambassador to Ireland Edward F Crawford greets Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the Ambassador’s Residence during an Independence Day Party in the Phoenix Park last night. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Greetings: Newly appointed US Ambassador to Ireland Edward F Crawford greets Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the Ambassador’s Residence during an Independence Day Party in the Phoenix Park last night. Photo: Steve Humphreys
John Downing

John Downing

It is ironic that a stone's throw from EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Irish beef is in a prime position on sale in all that city's supermarkets at a premium price.

The same can be said about supermarkets across mainland Europe right now - Irish beef has finally arrived and is in big demand.

Yet it is not a good time to be an Irish beef farmer and they have grounds for feeling they are not getting a fair return for effort. It takes no leap of imagination to know that news of the EU-Mercosur trade deal - raising the prospect of cheap and lower-standard South American meat imports - could be seen as perhaps the final blow.

Already, low prices, huge dependence on EU income supports, and huge Brexit uncertainty about future Irish food exports to the UK, were much too much. Cue unsurprising Irish farmer anger, followed by a chain reaction in the political system, especially among Fine Gael backbenchers now facing into an election year.

The Opposition, busy fuelling the legend that Fine Gael is too urbane to care, is happy pumping up the volume. Fine Gael has to come out swinging.

An hour-long debate in the Dáil yesterday saw a huge contribution from Agriculture Minister Michael Creed.

In essence he said the Irish Government will use environment rules and climate change requirements to "thwart" and "dismantle" the EU-Mercosur trade deal and protect Irish beef.

But when you strip out the strong language, you find Mr Creed's assertion essentially repeats guarantees given by EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan in this newspaper on Tuesday.

The EU Commissioner said the four Mercosur states - Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay - will export nothing to the EU unless they meet EU standards on product and the environment.

Among some politicians at Leinster House, doubts were cast yesterday about whether Mr Hogan will have his EU term renewed in the coming weeks. Other better-placed sources dismissed such talk and insisted the former Fine Gael hardman will soon get the nod from the Taoiseach to serve another five years in the EU executive, very possibly with an enhanced role.

The febrile atmosphere in Irish farming is compounded by a deal of extra movement within the farming unions. Firstly, the main union, the IFA, is under ongoing pressure from a plethora of other organisations which say they are able to do a better lobbying job.

Secondly, by this autumn, those who want to succeed Joe Healy as IFA president will be on the campaign trail.

Opening the Mercosur Dáil debate, Business Minister Heather Humphreys, herself from a farming community, said that ultimately over 40 parliaments will have their say on the controversial deal.

She insisted the Government "absolutely fought to achieve the best deal possible for our farmers". As Business Minister she pointed up significant benefits for Irish exporters including business services, chemicals, the drinks industry, machinery, medical devices and the dairy sector.

On the Opposition attack front, Fianna Fáil agriculture spokesman Charlie McConalogue said the deal could mean a €5bn hit on the EU beef market and up to 16pc reduction in prices. Sinn Féin agriculture spokesman Martin Kenny said South American farm practices meant "no tags, no traceability, no disease prevention".

The IFA plans to take its case directly to Leinster House next week. Things will get worse for Fine Gael before they get better.

Irish Independent

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