I have on a number of occasions over recent years pointed out to the EU both within the Council of Ministers and in bilateral discussions with the Commissioner the deficiencies in the sheepmeat regime. At the recent meeting of the Agriculture Council last month, I outlined the serious income situation facing sheep producers and the failure of the ewe premium system to properly compensate Irish producers because of the lack of convergence of prices across the European Union. In particular, I requested the Commissioner to take urgent action to address these issues, including by way of the temporary suspension of the stabiliser or through the payment of a supplementary premium in member states where prices are significantly below the EU average. Apart from the United Kingdom, there was no support for these suggestions from other member states.
I have also raised the extensification premium with the Commission on a number of occasions in recent years. The Commission has refused to exclude sheep from the calculation of stocking density for the extensification premium because it claims that to do so would introduce a new inequity between beef producers who also raise sheep and beef producers who rear cattle only. I again raised the sheepmeat regime anomalies at the November Council of Agriculture Ministers meeting and Commissioner Fischler indicated that he intends to review the current sheepmeat regime next year which I regard as a significant development. I intend to continue to pursue this matter with the Commissioner, and as appropriate with the EU Agriculture Council.
It is worthwhile to remember that, in spite of all its defects, the ewe premium system provides income support for Irish producers amounting to approximately £110 million per annum with a further £22 million coming from headage payments under Structural Funds. Sheep producers also derive considerable benefits from the REPS and I ask sheep producers not yet in REPS to give serious consideration to joining the scheme, which has conferred considerable benefits on those producers who are already participants. The amount of money contributed by the EU and indeed the Exchequer to the sector is quite substantial and, while I am fully committed to securing improvements in the system, we have to acknowledge that the regime per kilo of sheepmeat produced is seen to be relatively expensive by the Commission and other member states.