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‘Farmers and their leaders were enthusiastic about joining’

Agricultural economist, public-policy advisor, and the Government’s special envoy on food systems, Tom Arnold has held a variety of key positions in Irish agriculture over the decades, and is well-positioned to reflect on the impact of Ireland’s membership of the European Economic Community (EEC)

The story of Ireland’s interest in the European project, according to Tom, began well before Ireland joined in 1973.
“There was a very clear recognition within the farming community from the early 1960s that membership of the EEC should be a goal for Irish farmers, and would provide a huge advantage for Irish agriculture.” The background to that belief was quite simple, he explains. “Ireland had very little market access to European and wider international markets, being almost entirely dependent on the British consumer to buy our agricultural produce. So, when the prospect for EEC membership first appeared in the early 1960s, farmers and their leaders were enthusiastic about joining. That was a short-lived hope, because President de Gaulle vetoed the British application, and it was not considered viable for Ireland to join without Britain. That all changed in the early 1970s when it was agreed Ireland would join at the same time as Britain and Denmark. A referendum held in May 1972 endorsed the application by a massive 83 per cent of the Irish electorate. We became members of the EEC in January 1973.”

An agricultural revolution

Ireland’s agricultural development since joining the EEC is described by Tom as ‘revolutionary’.
“The statistics support that description,” he says. “In 1972, one in three of our working population was engaged in agricultural production. That figure is now below 10 per cent. Productivity has risen significantly. The structure of the sector has changed enormously with fewer full-time farmers and that has been facilitated by wider economic development and greater opportunities for people living in rural Ireland.
“Increased productivity has been driven by several factors including the development of institutions such as An Foras Taluntais in 1958. Investment in science, in people, along with a willingness by rural people to adapt to and adopt new practices have all influenced our successful agricultural development. “Macra na Feirme had an important role in driving change as had Teagasc, Bord Bia, the Food Safety Authority and other organisations which all contributed to agriculture and food production being transformed, alongside access to European and global markets.”

The MacSharry reforms

A strong cog in the wheel along this journey, Tom says, was former agriculture and finance minister, Ray MacSharry, who served as EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development from 1989-1993.
“Sicco Mansholt was, of course, the godfather of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) but he [MacSharry] was one of the three most important agriculture commissioners in the history of CAP,” says Tom.
“Problems emerged over the years with unsustainable surpluses developing in the 1980s resulting in butter mountains and wine lakes. MacSharry changed the CAP from price supports to income supports, resulting in the emergence of the CAP we still have today. The CAP has become a more complex mechanism with more attention paid to the environment, to animal welfare, and so on. There is criticism, but even with those complexities, the CAP continues to work reasonably well. While it is not exclusively about food production, it is important that we continuously make the case that a focus on food production remains hugely important.” 

Changed times

“When Britain left the EU, the reason there was no discussion around Ireland’s continuing membership was because, overwhelmingly, Ireland had benefitted from EU membership to the extent that we are far more independent of Britain than we had been when we joined the Community in 1973,” Tom says.
“On the agricultural side, access to the CAP from 1973 onwards had delivered huge benefits. There were ups and downs along the way, of course, and the introduction of the milk quota in 1984 was problematic but Ireland secured a reasonable deal at the time, mainly through the intervention of Garret FitzGerald, the then Taoiseach, and his agriculture minister, Austin Deasy.
“But it was the wider effects of Ireland’s membership of the EU that led to the virtual unanimity that our place is within the EU – with or without Britain. A lot of that came from the development of the Single Market in 1992 officially implemented on January 1, 1993 with Ireland as a full-hearted member and benefiting greatly especially in our standard of living.”
When Ireland joined the EEC back in 1973, it was one of the poorer countries, Tom says.
“By the time Brexit came in 2016, we were among the best-off countries in the EU. We have a well-diversified trade, and we are much more self-confident. The claim by a minority in 1972 that we would lose our sovereignty through membership of the EEC was completely inaccurate. In fact, by pooling our sovereignty we gained influence and independence. Our political leaders and civil servants have been very skilled in influencing the shaping of policies at European level to Ireland’s advantage.”
Tom recognises the threats to EU stability from the increase in more extreme political philosophies both within the Union and globally: “The EU has responded collectively to the Ukrainian conflict. There is a realisation that multi-lateralism, which is at the heart of the EU, must be protected. There are short-term issues around re-establishing positive relationships with Britain. Hopefully they can be resolved to all our benefit.” 

The global context

But we need to look to the future within a global context, he says.
“There are two major challenges. By 2050 almost ten billion people will need to be fed. That’s two billion more than are living today. The second challenge is to feed those people while also reducing global warming. Even keeping temperature increases to 2.5 degrees above pre-industrial level is an enormous challenge. The agricultural sector, globally and in Ireland, will have to play its part. Productivity must rise, using fewer resources and in a way that is more sustainable. Ireland is well positioned to be a leader in sustainable food production. That’s the central message from the Food Vision Strategy, which I had the honour of chairing. I am confident it can be done despite the challenges involved.
“There are clear targets in place and they will concentrate our efforts. On the issue of water quality, there is no room for compromise. Society will not accept that agriculture contributes to continuing deterioration in water quality. Strong collaboration among farmers, our advisory services, the co-ops and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is essential. If Environmental Protection Agency measurements continue to show quality dropping, then farmers are on a hiding to nothing. That, for me, is the single biggest issue to be addressed very seriously and very urgently.”