Wednesday 16 October 2019

Editorial: 'Farmers trapped between Mercosur deal and Brexit'

Jean-Claude Juncker. Photo: PA
Jean-Claude Juncker. Photo: PA


Ireland has more than a passing interest in the furious horse trading which resumes in Brussels today to decide who will lead the European project for the next five years.

Twenty hours of talks ended at noon yesterday without agreement on a successor to Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission. Four other top Euro jobs also have to be filled in a way that balances left and right wing parties, gender and geography.

Among the names floated in recent days for the commission presidency was Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who has ruled himself out.

He has more than enough on his plate at home with Brexit looming and with beef farmers up in arms over the trade deal between the EU and Mercosur, a regional alliance of four South American countries.

Yesterday, Business and Enterprise Minister Heather Humphreys talked up the advantages in terms of benefits for exports of pharma products, medical devices, the dairy industry and services. But she had to acknowledge that it would have a big impact on the beef sector. Her Fine Gael colleague, EU Parliament vice-president Mairead McGuinness, went further and agreed the deal is "dangerous" for the sector with 99,000 tonnes of beef coming into Europe from South America.

It will, she predicted, be a hot political potato across Europe, not just in Ireland.

The deal puts Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan in a difficult spot.

He has said significant concessions were necessary to achieve it. Beef farmers will be supported if there is significant market disturbance he promised, but Ms McGuinness suggested this would ring hollow with farmers if things went wrong. Irish Farmers' Association president Joe Healy said the deal couldn't come at a worse time with the potential loss of massive beef exports to the UK if there is no Brexit agreement.

We have, as he noted, no idea what will happen after the Brexit deadline at the end of October. Neither does anybody else.

The next EU Commission president will have the unenviable task of dealing with a new UK prime minister, most likely Boris Johnson - who has set October 31 as the "do or die" date for leaving the European Union.

Both he and rival Jeremy Hunt seem, naively, to believe that threatening a no-deal Brexit will frighten Brussels into making concessions to Britain, especially on the backstop.

Hunt is seen as the more reasonable of the two. But he told the BBC if there was no negotiated settlement he would tolerate businesses going bust to ensure a no-deal Brexit: "I would do so but I'd do it with a heavy heart precisely because of the risks."

No wonder British business has reacted with alarm to his comments.

Irish Independent

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