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‘Fifty years later, that Common Market is unrecognisable’

Michael Berkery’s views on the impact of Ireland’s decision to join the European Economic Community (EEC) are based on his first-hand involvement in the evolution of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), when he was chief executive of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA). HERE, HE RECALLS THE EARLY DAYS OF THE COMMON MARKET AND THE EVOLUTION OF THE CAP

Well before TJ Maher (founding member of National Farmers’ Association [NFA, later the IFA] and former president of the IFA) played a pivotal leadership influence in the 1973 referendum to join the Common Market (EEC), NFA leaders like Juan Green, Rickard Deasy, Sean Healy and Louis Smith had established close contacts with like-minded farm-family organisations on the continent, especially in Belgium and the Netherlands.

These relationships and knowledge of the benefits of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and its attraction for Irish farmers delivered an overwhelming majority with 90 per cent of farmers voting in favour of joining the Common Market in the 1972 referendum.

Established in 1962 against a background of chronic food shortages in post-World War II Europe, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg agreed in the Treaty of Rome to set up a CAP to pool their resources and modernise farming and food production. Farmers were at the centre of this development with the stated objective being ‘to provide affordable, safe and high-quality food for European consumers in addition to ensuring a fair standard of living for farmers in line with other sectors of society’. 

Central to progress

Those objectives were to be achieved by applying community preference, market unity and financial solidarity, which entailed a substantial budget financed by the Member States. By any objective criteria, the CAP delivered on its mission and for Irish farmers and the food industry, joining the Common Market in 1973, now the European Union (EU), was transformational.

Fifty years later, that Common Market is unrecognisable. Similarly, Irish farming and the food industry have progressed beyond recognition from the the abysmal conditions and subsistence living standards of previous generations. EU membership has been central to that progress.

The constant challenge for Irish farmers is adjusting to the ever-changing requirements of an evolving CAP but even with these demands. Irish agriculture continues to benefit enormously from membership of the EU. 

A different climate

Representing Irish farmers in Europe in the the late 1970s was in an entirely different climate; farmers’ incomes were determined by the ‘objective method’ and product prices for the main commodities were set by intervention, ie. public purchase and storage of butter, milk powder, beef, wheat and barley to remove surpluses from the market. Being a surplus-producing area within the Common Market, Ireland became unhealthily dependent on this form of market support, particularly in milk and beef, which would lead to serious repercussions, later. In response to CAP prices, Irish milk production had doubled in the 10 years between 1972 and 1983, and the intervention system was coming under critical scrutiny. Ultimately, European farmers and the European Commission decided to maintain the price-support structure but limit production by introducing a fixed milk quota in 1984. While the IFA mounted a robust campaign opposing milk quotas and pointing out the far greater importance of milk production in the Irish economy than any other Member State, nevertheless, quotas were to last for 30 years until finally abolished in 2015.

While it’s indisputable that quotas limited Irish dairy farming, it’s also important to recognise that the industry was profitable during that period and the enormous investment in processing by co-ops heavily grant-aided by the European Commission, coupled with enhanced marketing capacity, provided the platform for the the recent spectacular growth of the Irish dairy industry. Cost competitiveness is the foundation of sustainability in dairying and Teagasc Moorepark has contributed enormously through its grass-based system in this regard. 

European Commission grant aid for beef processing has greatly improved efficiencies in the industry. 

EU structural funds have transformed facilities on Irish farms and recent years have seen massive investment in winter housing for stock, milking parlours, slurry storage – all very tangible benefits of EU structural improvements.

After the various reforms of the CAP over the past 40 years, it still remains the strongest direct-policy instrument universal among the 27 member states, accommodating all types of agriculture and food production on the European continent. A stark reminder of the importance of food security is the realisation that the world population, when Ireland entered the Common Market, was less than four billion and has doubled to eight billion in the 50 years since, and likely reach close to 10 billion by 2050.

As we embark on a new five-year CAP from 2023 to 2027, we have sight of the societal and political demands on farmers with particular emphasis on the environment. Our future is inextricably linked to European developments.