This is my first ‘Letter from Brussels’ since the General election.
I look forward to working closely with the team in Defra and of course the new Ulster Unionist MPs, Tom Elliott and Danny Kinahan, on issues which affect agriculture plus our rural economy and communities in the months ahead.
The Prime Minister has embarked on a whistle-stop tour of EU Member States seeking support for his plans for EU reform ahead of an in-out referendum.
Renegotiating the terms of the UK’s membership of the EU is no easy task, indeed Mr Cameron has received a mixed reception from his fellow EU leaders in recent days. Mr Cameron does have an opportunity to secure changes, with Grexit still a possibility EU leaders will increasingly appreciate the importance of the UK, its economy and consumers to the rest of the bloc. He is not alone in recognising the need for reform and Angela Merkel’s comments that treaty change could not be ruled out are both significant and to be welcomed.
Farmers and fishermen know better than most the impact decisions taken in Brussels can have on day-to-day life; be it in relation to the challenges posed by the complex new CAP or the December Fisheries Council where the fishing opportunities are set for the year ahead. This is an important debate, there are costs associated with membership yes but also benefits which flow from being in a single market of 500 million people.
For agriculture there are several ‘unknowns’ relating to the UK leaving the EU, for example; would the industry receive the same level of support from the UK Government as is currently the case through the CAP? What would be the costs of trading with the EU from outside?
In addition Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK to have a land border with another EU Member State which adds another important dimension to the debate locally. Also, given the level of trade between the Republic of Ireland and the UK you can be certain that Dublin is watching how this unfolds very, very closely.
Our new RDP has yet to be signed off by the European Commission with DARD officials and their counterparts in Brussels currently involved in final negotiations. Northern Ireland was one of the last parts of the EU to submit its draft proposals to the Commission. This was partly as a result of the breakdown in communication between the two main parties in the Executive in relation to the transfer of funds from Direct Payments to Rural Development which resulted in the court case in December 2013. I warned at the time that the failure of Ministers to discuss and agree on that issue would have longer term implications and the delay in the draft programme being submitted relates to that period of uncertainty regarding rural development funding.
The focus must now be to get the programme approved and rolled out and I highlighted the importance of this to Commissioner Hogan and his team earlier this week. It is vital that the new schemes hit the ground as quickly as possible, not least so that farmers can utilise the funds earmarked for farm business improvement. The delay does however provide an opportunity for the NIRDP to incorporate elements of the Commission’s new initiative which aims to unlock finance from the European Investment Bank for the agri-food industry although this is more by accident than design - the potential of this must be fully explored.