The agrifood sector is critical to the Irish economy and its regional spread means it underpins the socio-economic development of rural areas in particular. Brexit has the potential to have a very significant impact on the sector given its unique exposure to the UK market, which accounted for €5.2 billion of agrifood exports last year. There are ongoing discussions with the Commission regarding the difficulties that would face Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit and the assistance that might be required for its agriculture, food and fishery sectors. Avoiding a no-deal Brexit continues to be the Government’s overriding policy priority.
I have held a number of discussions with Commissioner Phil Hogan regarding the potential impact of a disorderly Brexit on the sector. I have stressed the need for the Commission to be ready to deploy a range of measures to mitigate the potential impacts on agrifood and fisheries, including through traditional market supports and exceptional aid under the Common Agricultural Policy's Single Common Market Organisation, CMO, regulation, as well as increased flexibility under state aid regulations. However, it is also important to acknowledge that the past few months have been very difficult for beef farmers in particular following a difficult year in 2018 due to weather conditions. There has been a prolonged and exceptional period of depressed prices since last autumn with the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the outcome of Brexit, among other factors, contributing to this market disturbance. In light of the ongoing depressed market prices I have, in discussions with Commissioner Hogan and my European Union counterparts, said that I believe that the deployment of exceptional measures under the CMO regulation to provide targeted aid to farm families who have suffered a sustained reduction in returns from the market is now merited. I made an intervention to this effect at the April meeting of the Council of Agriculture Ministers, and my officials are pursuing that matter with the Commission.
One of the unique strengths of the Irish agrifood sector has been the shared vision for the sustainable development of the sector in Food Wise 2025. It is crucial that we all continue to work together. I have highlighted the need for stakeholders to recognise their interdependency and to increase the strength of all links in the supply chain, including the development of beef producer organisations. I am deeply committed to fully supporting and developing Ireland’s beef sector. I am strongly of the view that the existing range of supports available to beef farmers under the rural development programme, together with ensuring access to as many markets as possible, both for live animals and beef exports, are appropriate for the continued development of the sector.