As the UK eyes the EU exit door, Northern Ireland is looking to the Irish Presidency of the European Council as an opportunity to lobby on behalf of farmers in upcoming Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) negotiations.
At a Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister Committee report meeting Monday, Members of the Assembly (MLAs) debated EU membership while voicing support of having a strong, unified front in CAP reform.
Stephen Moutray, DUP – Upper Bann, expressed his party’s support for an UK exit but was more concerned about the “single biggest issue facing us from Europe.”
“Europe cannot be discussed without immediately thinking of the rural dwellers and particularly rural families who very much depend on their Single Farm Payments especially at this very difficult time when banks are not lending as they once did.”
Moutray said the Dept of Regional Development, having consulted with farmers and become familiarised with CAP, “are at a strong position to fight the corner of our farming community.”
CAP accounts for half of the EU annual budget. Its average annual subsidy per farm is roughly €12,200 (£10,374) – providing almost half of farmers’ income in the EU. Based on hectares of land, small traditional farmers feel discriminated as 80 per cent of subsidies go to a quarter of farmers – those with the largest holdings.
Proposed reforms would subsidise acreage farmed instead of production totals and limit the amount a farm can receive at €300,000. A third of these “direct payments” would be dependent on meeting environmentally-friendly criteria such as permanently leaving pastures unploughed.
Many small farmers believe these regulations will put their families out of business, stressed Joe Byrne, SDLP – West Tyrone.
“The current negotiations on CAP reform are crucial for Northern Ireland agriculture in particular and indeed, the Northern Ireland regional economy,” said Byrne whose party has been pro-Europe for decades.
“We are lucky at this stage that Ireland has started the six months hosting of the Presidency and hopefully the negotiations can go in favour of our interests.”
Byrne said the Single Farm Payment subsidy is crucial for farmers and many are dependent on it – especially those in higher elevations and less productive land.
“This CAP support needs to be tailored and tweaked in the interests of the Northern Ireland farming community as a whole across the region.”
“Agriculture contributes £378 million directly into our local economy – worth double the UK GDP average for the region. Nearly 47,000 people are employed directly in agriculture,” said Byrne.
“The agri-food sector is central to this economy. It is the biggest contributor to our local economy. The agri-food industry overall totals £4 billion.”