‘I’d be honoured to be elected president’ – McGuinness

Less than a week after the Italian general election delivered an inconclusive result; Antonio Tajani, President of the European Parliament (EP), has stated his commitment to his current position and says he is “looking forward” to completing his tenure in top office.

Tajani – nominated as the prime ministerial candidate of the centre-right Forza Italia party – caused a bit of a stir in Brussels when he accepted the invitation to potentially lead his home country just days before last Sunday’s election.

As Italian voters waited on tenterhooks for the outcome of the ballot; so too did Fine Gael MEP and current First Vice-President of the European Parliament, Mairead McGuinness who would automatically have been elevated as interim leader of the parliament if Forza Italia had gained the most seats.

Although the resultant hung parliament means Italy is now looking at weeks – if not months – of political uncertainty until a new government is formed, Tajani openly expressed his intention to remain at the helm of the EP at a meeting of the European People’s Party (EPP) in Valencia, Spain, last Thursday (March 8).

The EPP is the European Union’s (EU) centre-right party and its largest and most influential political family consisting of 79 parties – including Fine Gael (FG) – and partners from 41 countries.

In response to a question on the issue from Sean Kelly, FG MEP for Ireland South, Tajani indicated that he is “looking forward to finishing his mandate at the European Parliament”.

Tajani is likely to remain as president until the European Parliament elections take place in May 2019; at which point it is possible that he could run for a second two and a half year term.

However, speaking to AgriLand at the conference, McGuinness – who was described by senior sources within the parliament as the “obvious choice” for the potential position based on her track record and experience at EU level – expressed her ambition to one day hold principal office.

In 2016, the Midlands North and West representative lost out in her bid to secure the EPP’s nomination for the race to become the next president of the EP. The Louth native received 57 votes in the first round; while, front runner, Tajani, secured 94 votes.

The speculation over what might have happened to the European presidency depending on the outcome of the Italian election was valid because our president declared that he would return in the role of prime minister should that have been the outcome.

“I think it’s less certain now what is going to happen. But, from my own sense, I remain first vice-president; I remain committed to carrying out that job, particularly as we face the onerous issues of Brexit, Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform and energy policy.

“For now both the president and I will continue to do our jobs to the fullest extent,” she said.

However, her desire to ultimately lead the parliament should the opportunity arise is quite apparent – particularly in light of on-going challenges facing European agriculture.

Of course any member of this house, any MEP, would like to be president of the parliament. The reason I stood for election as vice-president was obviously with that in mind.

“I enjoy, and I hope I’ve earned, the support and respect of members of the parliament across the political divide – that is why I got elected and that is why I would hope to remain in this position.

“Should things change it would be an honour, and a huge responsibility, for an Irish MEP to have the position of president of the parliament.

“There are only 11 in total; the parliament is made up of 751 members so it’s quite nice to think that some from the peripheral, smaller member states can be in a position to influence policy.

“I hope I do that effectively with an Irish eye; but, also with a European framework as well,” she said.

CAP contention

Right now, much of her focus is on CAP reform post-2020, which she says is raising many challenges in Brussels – particularly around proposals to create greater autonomy among member states.

The issue is one of the main concerns featured in a draft report on the ‘Future of Food and Farming’ that will be debated by the EP’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development this week.

The document, seen by AgriLand, points out that already today existing flexibility for member states in defining basic rules “bears the danger of distorting competition” within the single market.

It is a concern that a lot of MEPs are talking about. There is this fear and threat of re-nationalisation, so I think we can’t dismiss it.

“The idea that we don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach makes sense; but, of course it has to be within a framework of a level playing field with no distortion of competition,” said McGuinness who was deeply involved in the last round of CAP reform in 2014.

Back then, she stressed that the biggest difficulty would be the fight within farming between the sectors. It is a battle that she anticipates will return two-fold.

“I actually think that division is now deeper and more stark than before. Therefore that is going to be front and centre of the entire debate which, in a way, is entirely valid because clearly the money is important and the distribution of it is vital.

There are many farmers who believe they don’t get a fair shot at payments and we have to look at that in the overall framework that the budget is under pressure. So, I think a realistic level of capping is inevitable.

“Some members think some sectors are economically viable and that we shouldn’t be giving support to them at all through single farm payments; so, we have some very challenging, heated debates ahead,” she said.

Having attended various CAP consultation meetings held nationwide by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine in recent weeks, McGuinness – whose constituency covers 15 counties – is very mindful of how regions can differ agriculturally.

A social welfare policy?

When asked what is a fair payment? Or does fair mean equal? McGuinness responded: “If we go down the road of saying that all farmers should get the same amount of money, I think we are talking about a policy that is not a common agricultural policy; but, is a social welfare support or a social welfare policy.

“We have to be very careful of that because if we go down that road there is more of a threat to re-nationalising the policy than if we stick to an agricultural policy that is commonly funded.

“The last time around farmers that gained an increase in payment were of the view that they didn’t get sufficient; while, those farmers who lost were very angry because they believed they needed that level of support to keep them in business.

I get lobbying from both sides of the coin because nobody wants to lose money and everyone wants to gain.

And then there is a bigger question around the environment which the European Commission is strongly emphasising under the new reforms.

Learning from past mistakes

McGuinness says she will be pushing for a policy that rewards farmers for current environmental management on farms.

“The commission is saying we need to reward farmers for extra work; but, we have made mistakes on that in the past.

In Pillar II we tend to have schemes on the environment which can inadvertently cause the destruction of natural habitats on farms in order to meet the demands of a scheme.

“We kind of tie farmers hands together and separately in a very dangerous way,” she said.

“Measuring nature with a measuring tape is not how you deliver a good environment. You deliver good environmental sustainability through farm management systems that are holistic – where production, sustainability and environment are all the one,” she said.

McGuinness also warned that she cannot see the new CAP system being fully operational by the end of 2020.

Instead, she forecasts that there will be a transition period towards the new regime for at least one year – if not more.