Simon Coveney gets my vote as ‘EU Politician of the Year’

COMMENT: I am not sure if the EU gives out prizes to its top political leaders. But if there is a category for European Politician of the Year, then Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney would get our vote – without hesitation. Ireland took on the Presidency of the European Union back in January with one very important item on the agenda – the review of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Let’s not forget farming and food still account for the lion’s share of the EU budget.

Given these dark days of austerity, Minister Coveney knew from the outset that he would be under pressure from the European Commission and countries such as the UK to deliver a deal that would significantly reduce agri-food expenditure.  Meanwhile, back at home organisations such as the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) were, and still are, demanding a finalised implementation package that will allow Irish agriculture expand in line with the objectives laid out in the Harvest 2020 report.

Previous CAP Reform deals have been settled in smoke filled rooms at the last minute, following protracted negotiations involving the Council of Agriculture Ministers and the Commission. This time around, however, Coveney had the added challenge of dealing with the European Parliament – hence the christening of the term ‘triologue’ – and the demands of 12 Central and Eastern European states that missed out on the CAP bun fight last time around. Naturally, these former Eastern Bloc countries want a bigger share of the CAP cake: that’s why they joined the EU in the first place.

Coveney’s master stroke in the negotiations was to christen a new term for Europe’s farming industry: “sustainable intensification”. In so doing he was able to juxtaposition the two core issues that go to the very heart of the challenges facing EU agriculture as a whole. These are the need to deliver on future food security while, at the same time, improving environmental practises across EU agriculture as a whole.

There is little doubt that the Irish Government found the right man at the right time to handle the agriculture portfolio and to get on with the complex negotiations that now characterise the entire CAP reform process. Coveney  has a tremendous grasp of his brief, is an excellent public speaker and, at a one-to-one level, has tremendous personal charisma. If evidence of this is needed, just think back on how he handled the recent horsemeat scandal.

As with all agreements, such as the CAP deal secured in Brussels on 26 June last, the devil will be in the detail.  That said one can only but praise Minister Coveney for the herculean job he did in getting all the EU power brokers to commit to a farm policy that pays deference to budgetary discipline while, at the same time, giving Irish agriculture hope for the future!