Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Questions (44)

Charlie McConalogue


44. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the latest developments on the provisional Mercosur agreement; the impact assessments being carried out at European Union and national level; the steps he is taking to protect farmers here by ensuring beef does not form an element of the final Mercosur deal at EU level; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49058/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

There was a commitment by the Government to do an impact assessment of the Mercosur agreement. In a recent response to a parliamentary question, it was indicated to me that the assessment will not be available until after the summer, which is simply unacceptable given the effect that the Mercosur deal would have on our beef sector. This Government is simply trying to cover up the damage the deal will do and delay the impact being known properly until after the general election. Will the Minister today account for this long delay?

On 28 June, the European Commissioners for trade and agriculture announced that agreement had been reached in principle between the European Union and Mercosur countries on a free trade agreement. As I said at the time, I am disappointed by the outcome of these negotiations, which includes a 99,000 tonnes tariff rate quota, TRQ, for beef from the Mercosur countries. The agreement is now in a process of legal scrubbing and translation, following which it is likely to be provisionally applied in all areas with the exception of investment-specific areas. Formal ratification will then take place through national parliaments.

Since the publication by the Commission in 2016 of its cumulative impact assessment of future trade agreements on European Union agriculture, the United Kingdom has decided to leave the European Union and a number of trade agreements have been concluded. I have therefore requested the Commission to update its 2016 study accordingly and Commissioner Phil Hogan has indicated that this will be completed in 2020. In addition, the Commission has engaged consultants to carry out a sustainability impact assessment of the Mercosur agreement. A draft interim report was published in October and the final report is expected in early 2020. These European Union assessments are being augmented at national level by the economic and sustainability assessment announced by An Taoiseach. This whole-of-government analysis of the potential effects of the agreement on Ireland is being led by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation which has overall responsibility for Irish trade policy. My Department will be part of the steering group managing this assessment.

Why on Earth is it taking until next summer for the Minister's Department to finish an impact assessment on such an important deal that will have such a negative impact on our beef sector in particular? It is simply unacceptable and not rational or reasonable for it to take that length of time. The Minister has indicated that significant assessments have been done on this in the past and the Minister's Department has even done an assessment. A significant body of work was done in the European Union cumulative impact assessment, which indicated that the trade deal proposed at that stage would have a significant impact on the price of beef across Europe.

The only reason or rationale for delaying this until next summer is that the Minister does not want the impact of agreeing this Mercosur deal on the beef sector to become any clearer than it is already. As we know, that sector is already under massive pressure and many farmers are not making a profit. Why is there a need for approximately eight more months to finalise the assessment, given that the deal has already been signed for a number of months?

The Deputy speaks of the Mercosur trade agreement as if it were a reality today and we are suffering its consequences; that is not the case and there is quite a period to go before it will become the reality. There is talk about the deal being agreed but there is quite some time to go before a decision will be required by this institution or other member state parliaments or regional assemblies on the Mercosur agreement. It is important that we take the time to do the appropriate assessment of the impact this would have on our agrifood sector, our beef industry in particular and the economy in general. In the context of the assessment that has been mentioned, this is being dealt with primarily by the Department with lead responsibility on trade and its Minister, my colleague, Deputy Heather Humphreys. My Department is also involved.

We also await the final report of the Commission. It is not a question of kicking the matter to an imaginary date the Deputy might consider politically advantageous. It is about taking the appropriate steps. We are not now, nor are we likely to be in 2020 or 2021, anywhere near a decision on the content, which is why it is important that we properly analyse the impact of the transposition of the headline agreement into a legal text in order that we will protect our interests as much as possible.

The analysis has to be comprehensive but does not have to take that length of time. Apart from the impact it will have on our beef market at European level, which is already 102% self-sufficient, the addition of 100,000 tonnes, which will increase supply while consumption is already under pressure, does not make sense. It also flies in the face of the rationale of climate action, given that it will involve transporting meat produced with a large carbon footprint in South America to an oversupplied market, which does not make sense from the perspective of climate action. Unfortunately, the Government, the Minister and the Taoiseach failed to get the message across at European level as to the lack of logic of the beef element of the Mercosur deal or the impact it will have on our beef sector domestically. An impact assessment for Irish and European beef needs to be completed promptly, and the Minister and the Taoiseach need to push back hard at European level in respect of the impact it will have if it is followed through and agreed.

The point the Deputy advanced is a dangerous and false narrative in defence of his position on the carbon footprint of the transport element. We export our product to more than 180 countries, some of which are as far removed from here as the Mercosur countries are from Europe. I have seen figures that suggest that the life cycle footprint of the product is critical, and the life cycle on farm is where the greatest footprint is. We make every effort to ensure that in the agreement's transposition into a legal text, corrections will be built in for areas such as safeguarding sustainability on climate issues and the single payment scheme. We are working to ensure they will be drafted in such a way as to give us as much assurance as possible.