EU to audit Ireland’s land eligibility next month

Officials from the EU Commission are scheduled for a week-long visit to meet with the Department of Agriculture next month to review the land eligibility situation.

This was confirmed by Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, who was speaking at yesterday’s ICSA Ireland AGM in Dublin.

“I do not want to be taking money off farmers, but if they have drawdown money that was not eligible for payment,” he said.

“My aim is to defend, to build up to support the agri-food and farming sector and that is my job. But I have two choices here with land eligibility. We have a much more accurate way of photographing farms now than we had before. Last July we introduced a new system whereby, we have satellite imagery, which is crystal clear. And that is replacing photographs, which were taken from high-flying aircrafts, that was blurred around the edges to put it midly.”

He explained that the EU Commission has requested this data. “If land does not have the capacity to be farmed, it is not eligible for a farm payment, for example if a farmer has been claiming land on a rough road or a scrub area or a forest area or on a river or a marsh,” he stressed.

The minister said this is now becoming evident in the new mapping system. “We can either try an assess every land parcel in the country and make an assessment on the basis on what percentage of the land is not eligible and give that money back. This is public money. Or the Commission will come here and do it for us. So this idea that we can tell the Commission to get lost and this is our money is not realistic.”

Minister Coveney said the reason it is not realistic is that some countries have already been fined on this issue.

“So unless the Commission is going to give back hundreds and millions of euros, well then we have to find a way to minimise our exposure collectively as farmers in Ireland.

“I am only asking farmers to payback money on land that was clearly not eligible and you can see that from the maps. And if they have an issue with that, an appeals system is in place and an outside appeals system outside the department is also in place, so we are going to check and check again before we take any money off you.”

Again he cautioned the ICSA Ireland audience that if Ireland does not deal with this internally to the satisfaction of the EU Commission they will come and make its own assessment.

“This assessment will be by averaging overclaims and multiple that figure by five or seven and that will be a disallowance for Ireland for every farm.” He estimates this amounts to between €110m to €160m.

The minister concluded: “We are trying to work out a way that we can manage that payment to the satisfaction to the Commission to avoid disallowance in a way that is as fair as possible to farmers so we don’t ask them for a big lump sum of money. We are working on a case-by-case basis to try and ensure the people who overclaimed are not put out of business because of some big repayment. We will continue to push the EU Commission as best we can to lighten the load.”

Pictured new ICSA president Patrick Kent with the Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney TD