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Mairead McGuinness : "Agriculture is not just an economic sector : it's also social"

Mairead McGuinness is an Irish MEP and member of the agricultural committee of the European Parliament. She spoke to Touteleurope.fr about the recent report of the European Parliament on CAP reform and outlined her views on why CAP should remain a priority of the EU. She cautions against dismantling the CAP which provides essential public goods for all European citizens. She recalls that ensuring food security, balanced rural development and high levels of environmental protection are now the central objectives of the CAP.

Touteleurope.fr : The Agriculture committee of European Parliament endorsed George Lyons’ report on the CAP reform? What are its main points? How far is it from the current positions of the Council and the Commission?

Mairead McGuinness : First of all, the George Lyon’s report is quite wordy as it contains a lot of different viewpoints in the agriculture committee. It covers a number of points that are critical as well as areas where I would have some difficulty with the positions outlined but as a package it sets out for the first time the priorities of the European Parliament.

One of these priorities identified in this report is that there should continue to be a strong Common Agricultural Policy and that we need to maintain the budget for it. We have concerns about young farmers, we need to look at the distribution of payments between Member States and between farmers and that we need to look at market support measures. The report reflects much of the concerns that MEPs had across the 27 member states without coming down too heavily on a path for the future.

I think that it is an important first step, we are in the early stages of our reflection. We need to discuss, to learn, to look at impact assessments and to take advice before we narrow down the focus. This report is a first stab if you like of the agricultural committee on the CAP, it is more broader than specific, but I think this is an important step at this stage.

In relation to how it fits with the views of Council and the Commission, clearly the Commission hasn’t outlined a position at all. The only clear position the Commissioner has is that he is not in favour of the current historic payments system continuing. He has not, however, put forward other options, nobody really has yet.

The Council, I would expect, has many different voices within it. Nonetheless, there is clarity from the three institutions that there should continue to be a Common Agricultural Policy, that we will reform it but we are not clear as to what shape these reforms will take.

TLE : What to do you think of the proposal that has been floated of cutting agricultural subsidies to Member States that infringe EU budgetary rules?

Mairead McGuinness, Fine Gael MEP for Ireland East, serves on the European Parliament’s Agriculture and Rural Development Committee; the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, and on the Petitions Committee. Prior to becoming an MEP she was a well-known journalist, broadcaster and commentator.

Mairead Mc Guinness : I don’t think it would correct to link CAP funding and the financial crisis or debt issues in Member States. We have a Agricultural Policy that was one of the founding policies that is common to all the states since the very inception of the EU which means that when the Council is seeking to apply sanctions they might consider cutting this funding as many other funding schemes do not apply to all Member States.

However, just because it is a common policy and could be used as a sanction does not mean it is a reason to do so. Food security is a crucial issue for the 27 Member States. In my opinion it would not make sense to meddle with CAP funding in this way.

TLE : Does the CAP budget need to be revised?

Mairead Mc Guinness : There has been huge debate. CAP is obviously a visible share of the total spend of the EU. But it is the only real common policy across all Member States and the size of the CAP budget reflects this reality. The share of budget has gone to agriculture, and rural development has declined over time and looks set to continue to decline.

On the question of whether the budget needs to be reduced, I absolutely reject that. We now have 27 Member States. There is increased rural development and agriculture needs in the new Member States. Perhaps one of the mistakes that was made in the planning for enlargement was that not sufficient attention was paid to the budgetary requirements of the Common Agricultural Policy in the enlarged EU. As a result by 2013, whether we reform CAP or not, there will be cuts in the single farm payment to farmers in the old Member States because of budgetary pressures.

Therefore the budget is a big problem. We will have to confront it. Also, of course, from a taxpayer’s point of view, they need to know that the money is being well spent. If we want an ambitious agricultural policy encompassing delivery of public goods such as food security, environmental protect and animal welfare then the public will know that their money is being spent in a way which is delivering goods and services for them that otherwise they would not have.

TLE : Is the CAP important in Ireland ? Does Ireland still need the CAP? Do you agree with the Irish Government’s position on CAP?

Mairead Mc Guinness : The CAP is vital for Ireland because agriculture is a very important part of our economy. Those who know Ireland will know that we have the forty shades of green ! We have good grasslands. We produce lots of beef which we need to sell on the European market. We have abundant dairy produce and lamb. However, agriculture is important not just as an economic sector, while that is vital, but also as a social sector. It is important for rural development. It maintains a vibrant, living rural society.

Secondly, the Single Farm Payment which comes from the CAP is a major support to farm incomes. In the last year or so in particular, when farm incomes were under enormous pressure, if had we not had the support of the CAP it is very difficult to know where our farmers would be at this point in time. It is a vital part of their income. So for all of these reasons Ireland is watching the evolution of the CAP issue very closely.

There are many nuances to this debate. The Irish government’s official position is that we are in favour of maintaining the current system which is the historic basis for the distribution of the single farm payment. There is an awareness that there is not widespread support for this view, but I think it is fair to say that we should only change it if we have a proposal for a better system of distribution. While the current system has some flaws, and not all farmers support it, it may not be as bad as it depicted. I think it is important not to makes changes just for the sake of making changes. If we are going to change the CAP we need to make sure that we move in the right direction.

TLE : What is the position of the Council on CAP reform? In your opinion, are the negotiations going in the right direction?

Mairead Mc Guinness : I think in this respect the Council is perhaps like the European parliament, there are many voices within it and they are influenced by the various viewpoints within in each Member state. Even in Ireland there are many voices on what shape the CAP should take. From the point of each country, each Minister has to look at the broad issues as to how reform might affect them and how important the issue is for their country.

I am not too concerned about the individual positions of Member States at this stage. I think it is an evolving debate. What is interesting is that no one is very vigorously suggesting absolutely radical reform as this does not have much support on the ground. It doesn’t have much support as we have seen what happened to the milk sector and grain production where prices were very, very high and then collapsed with dramatic consequences for producers.

Equally, very high prices for producers had dramatic consequences for consumers. We are dealing with an area which is vital for the supply of quality food and the food security for our citizens. I am glad that food security is actually on the agenda. I think that we in Europe are in danger of thinking that we can always rely on other trading partners to supply our food. I believe it is important we produce food in abundance in the European Union for our citizens.

Find out more :

Mairead McGuinness’ Website

Common agricultural policy (CAP) - Touteleurope.fr

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