EU will not renegotiate over nitrates derogation, says Minister for Agriculture

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The EU is “crystal clear” that there will be no renegotiation on the reduction of Ireland’s nitrates derogation, the Minister for Agriculture has insisted.

Charlie McConalogue has faced criticism from farming organisations, which have challenged him to put pressure on Brussels to reverse its decision to reduce the volume of nitrogen produced per hectare in Ireland.

Ireland is one of three EU member states that is granted a derogation to enable some farmers to work to a higher nitrate limit than is applied in the rest of the bloc.

However, that allowance is now being reduced in response to concerns about water quality levels in Ireland.

The allowance of 250kg of organic nitrogen per hectare (N/ha) is now being reduced to 220kg N/ha. The limit for EU states that do not have a derogation is 170kg N/ha.

Farmers held protests at Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s respective think-in events last week, insisting the cut in the nitrate limit would force them to reduce herd sizes.

Fianna Fáil minister Mr McConalogue is sure to face further questions from concerned farmers over the coming days as he attends the National Ploughing Championships in Co Laois.

“As minister I’ll always be honest and straight with farmers in relation to any challenges we have, in relation to the work we’re doing on their behalf, and also in relation to how we prepare to support them in their farming enterprises,” he told RTÉ Radio One.

“We have a derogation – one of three member states a European level that have a derogation from the norm that other member states have.

“And that derogation is based on the fact that we need to be seeing improvements in water quality.

“We renegotiated it 18 months ago. It was a very difficult negotiation whereby the (European) Commission were actually looking to reduce it even further than what we ended up with.

“I put together a submission to the Commission over the summer, in consultation with the farm organisations, having engaged very closely with them, but the Commission has been crystal clear to me that there’s absolutely no prospect of it being reopened at the moment.”

At the Fine Gael think-in last week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar met representatives from the Irish Farming Association (IFA) in Co Limerick and agreed to invite EU Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius for a meeting in Ireland to discuss the derogation issue.

That led to suggestions that the Taoiseach had intervened to overrule Mr McConalogue’s position that he would not be going back to the EU to renegotiate the limit cut.

The agriculture minister insisted that Mr Varadkar also accepted there would be no renegotiation of the current allowance.

He said the focus is now on securing a renewal of the four-year derogation when the current one expires at the end of 2025.

“I had also invited Commissioner Sinkevicius to Ireland and indeed I met the commissioner yesterday and he’s indicated that he will be coming and accepting that invitation,” said Mr McConalogue.

It’s very clear now that our key objective here is to make sure we all work together to make sure whenever the current derogation comes up for renegotiation at the end of 2025 that we hold on to it, because it is essential for so many farmers and important to our farming system

Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue

“But the Taoiseach has been very clear in his public comments on this that the Commission have indicated that there is no renegotiation of that. The Taoiseach has said that publicly.

“The Taoiseach has been very clear to me in person as well, in terms of the meeting he had with the IFA last week and in terms of the invitation to the commissioner that it’s very clearly on the basis that there’s a full understanding across government that the Commission have indicated that there’s no possibility of reopening the derogation.”

The minister added: “So it’s very clear now that our key objective here is to make sure we all work together to make sure whenever the current derogation comes up for renegotiation at the end of 2025 that we hold on to it, because it is essential for so many farmers and important to our farming system.

“There’s good reasons why we have it. But let’s be clear – it’s crucial that we continue the hard work that is ongoing to improve water quality, because it is improving water quality that will actually make sure that we retain that derogation.”

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