The spark has gone out of the EU’s ‘mar­riage’ with farm­ers

Irish Independent - Farming - - ANALYSIS - ANN FITZGER­ALD

WE had our Bord Bia Qual­ity As­sur­ance in­spec­tion last week. Thank­fully, we passed. But, boy, was it stress­ful. We got caught out last time round and were de­ter­mined not to let that hap­pen again.

In fair­ness, the in­spec­tor was grand. He had a job to do. But, for the two hours he was around, we were all on ten­ter­hooks. Es­pe­cially when he came into the house to check the pa­per­work.

It be­ing mid-term, the girls were off school. Our anx­i­ety must have rubbed off on them be­cause they were tip­toe­ing around, barely dar­ing to whis­per.

When it was all over, Robin an­nounced that we had got 99pc. So hur­rah! That’s that out of the way for an­other 18 months.

It got me think­ing about the na­ture of farm­ers’ re­la­tion­ships with the var­i­ous su­per­vi­sory bod­ies, in­clud­ing Bord Bia, county coun­cils, the De­part­ment (on be­half of the EU) and oth­ers which have emerged/grown out of our re­la­tion­ship with the EU.

I may be a bit naïve here, but it seems to me that the pre­vail­ing feel­ings of Ir­ish farm­ers to­wards the EU when we joined in 1973 were ex­cite­ment and hope.

It was like a new mar­riage, where noth­ing is too much trou­ble for ei­ther party, such is their de­sire to please the other.

How­ever, from the 1980s on­wards, with each new re­view of the Com­mon Agri­cul­ture Pol­icy, the re­la­tion­ship seemed to stale a lit­tle. Why did it hap­pen? Farm­ers feel the mes­sage keeps chang­ing.

Var­i­ous CAP re­forms have taken us through pay­ment cou­pling and de­cou­pling to par­tial cou­pling; the in­tro­duc­tion to milk quo­tas and their abo­li­tion 30 years later; they have taken us through Se­ta­side and Green­ing.

When the Euro­pean project started out, food se­cu­rity was at its heart and the stated ob­jec­tives in­cluded the har­mon­i­sa­tion of pri­mary pro­duce prices.

The EU now sees land as not just where food is pro­duced, but as hav­ing a broader role, in terms of the en­vi­ron­ment and cli­mate change.

Farm­ers are great when it comes to do­ing things they can see the sense of what’s at stake. They are not as good when the ob­jec­tives are more com­plex and less tan­gi­ble.

Both sides feel dis­ap­pointed with the other’s be­hav­iour.

Let me give an ex­am­ple from the farm­ers’ side.

Septem­ber 15 was the last day for spread­ing fer­tiliser, un­der the Ni­trates Di­rec­tive. It was fore­cast to be buck­et­ing for the few days be­fore that but dry for the fol­low­ing few days. And the fore­cast was right.

Surely it would have made sense to ex­tend the spread­ing pe­riod by a few days. It’s a lit­tle thing that would have meant a lot. The EU has told us that Cal­en­dar Farm­ing was in­tro­duced be­cause farm­ers were per­form­ing such tasks in un­suit­able con­di­tions.

But are those who broke the pre­vi­ous less pre­scrip­tive rules more likely to obey stricter ones? The rules were ad­e­quate, en­force­ment is the is­sue.

An­other prob­lem is that each re­form has brought more com­plex­ity and bu­reau­cracy.

What makes this all the worse is that ev­ery re­form sets out to sim­plify things — current com­mis­sioner Phil Ho­gan even made it his “ul­ti­mate ob­jec­tive” — but there is lit­tle sign of that hap­pen­ing yet.

On top of all this is the be­lief that too much EU money ends up in the pock­ets of the gro­cery giants, rather than ben­e­fit­ing ei­ther farm­ers or con­sumers.

The mar­riage has gone from be­ing happy, to ser­vice­able, to frac­tious.

So could we be head­ing for di­vorce? Nah. We couldn’t af­ford it.

A new EU Com­mis­sion Com­mu­ni­ca­tion on the fu­ture of the CAP is due to be pub­lished on Novem­ber 29.

Maybe I am be­ing naïve (again!) but what I would love to see in it is an ef­fort to re­new re­la­tion­ships with farm­ers, to re­store some good­will and vim.

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