There’s a nice outing to Germany this weekend for the Agriculture Minister, if one could be appointed in time.
The informal meeting of EU agriculture ministers will be held in Koblenz from Sunday to Tuesday.
Prior to the actual meeting of the ministers on Tuesday, an excursion to the wine-growing region of Winningen on the Moselle will be offered, to provide the representatives of the EU member states with an insight into the Moselle region’s cultural landscape and steep-slope viticulture.
It’s the weekend of Moselfest, Germany’s oldest wine festival, no doubt somewhat subdued by Covid-19 precautions, but still a nice location and event for forgetting about the pandemic for a while.
The Ministers will be well looked after, hosted by Germany’s former Wine Queen, Julia Klöckner, the country’s federal minister for food and agriculture, and the chair of the EU Council of agriculture ministers, for Germany’s six-month EU presidency.
It may well be the Council’s most important meeting of the year.
For much of 2020, it has been a talking shop with no significant decisions possible, until the July 21 Special European Council where EU leaders agreed a comprehensive package of €1,824.3 billion which combines a Covid-19 recovery effort and the 2021-2027 budget, to rebuild after the pandemic and launch green and digital transitions.
After that momentous agreement, Agriculture Ministers at last know how much is in the budget for agriculture, and they can begin to make real decisions on the CAP reform process which started in 2018.
Who knows what momentous decisions may be discussed by Ministers next weekend at the wine-tasting, and what bonds will be formed for the upcoming crucial reform talks?
We may never find out, because it has been January since we had a fully-fledged, established Minister for Agriculture.
After the general election on February 8, Michael Creed continued in a caretaker capacity.
He remained in that position until the end of June, when a new Taoiseach was elected and a range of new Ministers were appointed.
They included Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Barry Cowen.
He was straight into action two days after he was appointed, taking part in the Covid-19 restricted monthly meeting of EU agriculture ministers by video conference, on June 29.
He said Ireland has always favoured a strong green ambition in the new CAP, but emphasised that the increased environmental ambition in the CAP must be matched with an appropriate budget.
He said there must be full impact assessments of the EU’s proposed new farm to fork and biodiversity strategies.
In relation to fisheries, he said Ireland is committed to protecting the interests of our fishing industry, and will continue to work constructively to meet the challenges that will undoubtedly arise as the negotiations with the UK on a new fisheries agreement continue.
Unfortunately, Mr Cowen only lasted 17 days in the job as Agriculture Minister.
His dismissal by Taoiseach Micheál Martin after refusing to make a second public statement about a drink-driving ban imposed on him four years ago was the first of a series of setbacks for the new government.
The EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council met next in person, on July 20.
Ireland was represented by Agriculture Minister Dara Calleary, appointed five days previously.
Minister Calleary called for strong and enduring support for farmers and a high level of green ambition for the CAP.
He welcomed the proposed Farm to Fork strategy, but said it must be a guiding set of clear and ambitious principles for farmers, not a straitjacket.
Alas, Minister Calleary is gone. After 37 days in the job, he resigned after breaching Covid-19 guidelines by attending an Oireachtas Golf Society event with over 80 people in attendance.
With the Oireachtas Golf Society controversy still blazing, it is most unlikely that acting Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Micheál Martin will go to Koblenz this weekend.
The burning question is who takes over as Agriculture Minister, and when.
The next formal Agriculture and Fisheries Council council of ministers will take place on September 21 and 22.
Regardless of the fact that it has overnight become the most hazardous job in the Cabinet, Agriculture is one of our most important ministries.
And a huge €1.262 billion of its expenditure comes direct from the EU.
It is very important to have someone established in the position ahead of the Brexit endgame, monitoring EU-UK negotiations, and working on Brexit readiness.
There are huge implications for fisheries and for exports of food and drink.
Transitional arrangements must be decided for 2021 in the €4 billion Rural Development Programme (including the GLAS, TAMs, EIPs, and organic programmes).
The launch of the renewed TB eradication programme is overdue.
Important decisions must be made on the Climate Action Plan 2020 targets and budgets.
They are just some of the big ticket items, but farmers across the country are waiting for decisions ranging from the Pig and Poultry Investment Scheme investment ceiling to CAP Strategic Plans to an animal welfare strategy for Ireland.
Nitrates decisions must be made, such as amending nitrogen excretion figure for dairy cows.
Important National Reserve and Young Farmers Scheme decisions are needed in September.
Talks are needed with the EU Commission on the administrative inquiry it has initiated into fisheries control in Ireland.
Who is the best candidate for the job?
From the point of view of continuity and someone who can step into the job fully prepared, there could be only one choice — bring back Michael Creed.
As one of the senior ministers in the EU Council, he succeeded last April in garnering the support of all 26 of his counterparts to seek a European response to the impact of Covid-19 for the agri-food sector.
The joint approach by all 27 Member States registered strongly with the European Commission.
That kind of influence at EU Agriculture Council level could prove vital in the months ahead as Brexit and CAP reform are decided.
If Minister Creed could be persuaded to return to the job, he would be a safe pair of hands.
Unfortunately, politicking may win out over logic and commonsense, and dictate that the new Agriculture Minister has to be from Fianna Fáil and from the west of Ireland.