We can't set the price of beef, but we are trying to help – Varadkar – Farming Independent

No government action is going to be able to increase the price of beef to the level farmers want, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has warned.

Speaking exclusively to the Farming Independent at the Fine Gael ‘think in’ last Friday, the Taoiseach said he would be happy to meet different sides of the ongoing beef dispute, but said he has every confidence in the Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed.

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“In fairness, he has managed to get an agreement, but it was not signed up to by everyone. As a Government, we are there to support him and I have said if there is anything I can do to help I’m willing to do this.”

Everyone knows the Government cannot decide beef prices, but it is trying to help, he said. However, he warned there is an underlying difficulty in the beef sector.

“The beef price is very low, it’s a price that is similar across Europe and it’s below the cost of production. Demand for beef is pretty flat with production being high, and competition is high and there is a fundamental problem there and it’s something we have to talk about in the long term. No Government action is going to be able to increase the price to the level farmers want,” he said.

His own comments about looking to reduce his beef consumption, which caused much derision from the farming community, were misconstrued, he said, and he was not offering advice to others, he insisted.

“I said it was something I was doing for reasons around health and climate; and I think everyone has the right to decide what they eat, quite frankly.”

He still expects farmers to back the party, as they have traditionally done, despite the pressure beef farmers are currently under.

Protecting farm incomes, he said, is a priority for the Government, citing the €100m that was directed to the BEAM scheme for the beef sector.

“We want to be able to protect farm incomes, so people can stay on the land and farms can pass down through families and we need to look at smarter, more modern ways to remunerate farmers. And part of that can be linked to climate, as that is where the money is going to be and it’s where the real political push around Europe is,” the Taoiseach explained.

To do that, he said, there must not be a cut in the CAP budget.

“There are a lot of countries that would like a reduction in the CAP budget, they would say we have other priorities, and we should deliver money to those things. We are willing to increase our contribution to the European budget if programmes that we believe work, such as CAP, are protected.”

But he said to win that battle the CAP must be modernised and linked more to climate action, paying farmers to reduce GHG emissions.

“I think that’s our best chance of maintaining that budget at its current levels.”

With Brexit looming, he said the idea of an ‘agri backstop’ which has been touted by the British government does not solve the problem of tariffs, under a no-deal Brexit.

“Treating Ireland as a single (phytosanitary) SPS zone would minimise the need for checks. But that falls far short of what I’d like to achieve. There would still be tariffs, for example, under that and tariffs would be erroneous.”

As an exporting nation, he’s adamant Ireland must be in favour of free trade agreements all the time.

“We are totally dependent on free trade for our future. We will be arguing in favour of a free trade agreement with no tariffs and as few quotas as possible with the UK. We need to be therefore careful how we play Mercosur.

“We can’t be free trade when it suits us and then against it when it doesn’t – that’s not a position that’s sustainable.”

However, the Taoiseach is adamant that the South American countries that are members of Mercosur must honour the climate change commitments they made in relation to the Paris Accord, as well as those relating to food standards and traceability.

Broadband

Rural broadband is also an issue that is high up in the Government’s to-do list.

“I think we should always bear in mind [that] the agricultural economy is crucial to rural Ireland, but there is more to rural Ireland than agriculture. There is tourism, industry and a lot of people working in public services.”

Decent broadband is vital for rural Ireland, and the Government is determined to get fibre on poles next year, the Taoiseach maintained.

“We are up to over 70pc high-speed broadband coverage in Ireland, up from 50pc when I became Taoiseach. I want to get to 100pc or at least 99pc and that means going ahead with the national broadband contract. I don’t think rural Ireland has a future in the 21st century unless people have fibre to the home.

“With the way the world of work is changing, we want people to be able to work from home and you need a secure connection to be able to do that. We want children to be able to access educational resources as they could in Dublin or Cork and so much of that is online. And public services increasingly are moving to remote medicines and this is something people need.

“We announced back in May that we were giving the contract to National Broadband Ireland and I remember our opponents at the time claimed there was a quicker and cheaper way to do it, but they haven’t come up with a quicker or cheaper way. I want to get that contract signed by the end of the year and I want fibre on poles next year.”

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