EU will not renegotiate over nitrates derogation, says McConalogue

David Young and Cillian Sherlock, PA

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 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 the State.

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 tents at the National Ploughing Championships on Tuesday, insisting the cut in the nitrate limit would force them to reduce herd sizes.

Fianna Fáil minister Mr McConalogue was heckled by a concerned farmer as he spoke to the media on the opening day of the event in Ratheniska, Co Laois.

Mr McConalogue, who will also attend on Wednesday and Thursday, told reporters he had been “clear and consistent” in the Government’s position on the derogation.

“It was a very difficult negotiation at the end of 2021, start of 2022 to re-secure the derogation we have.

“Because we know we have no right to it, we only get it at the enjoyment and consent of other member states, other member states actually have to vote to give it to us.”

Ireland is one of only three of the 27 member states that have such a derogation.

Mr McConalogue said he worked with all farming organisations to put together a submission to the Commission to amend the existing derogation to allow Ireland to stay at 250kg N/ha.

“The commissioner and the European Commission have been crystal clear in terms of the response to me that there’s absolutely no prospect and that they will not be reopening the derogation process or facilitating an amendment process to it.

“That means that we’re now on 220 from the start of next year.

“So listen, being crystal clear that that is the position of the Commission, not a national decision, the onus is on me as minister to be clear and honest to farmers in relation to the position we’re in.”

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.

He added: “That’s all I can do and that’s all I can all I can account for and my objective going forward will be to work with all farm organisations in relation to making sure we put ourselves in a position whereby we can retain that derogation when it comes up for negotiation at the end of 2025.”

He said the level would not be at 220kg N/ha if “we hadn’t fought hard to get it up from what the commission were proposing”.

Mr McConalogue said there will be another “real battle” in two years’ time to keep the derogation at that limit.

“The only way we will make sure we keep that derogation, which is so important to our farm sector, particularly the dairy sector, is if we’re making progress in relation to water quality.”

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 said he had written to the Commissioner himself already and insisted that Mr Varadkar also accepted there would be no renegotiation of the current allowance.

“I think the Taoiseach has been very clear that everything that can be done, has been done.”

He said it was important to bring Mr Sinkevicius to Ireland to show him the work farmers are doing in relation to water quality.

“Given that the commission is not in a position and have made it clear they are not going to reopen the existing derogation process, that we recommence and redouble our efforts immediately, to work towards putting ourselves in a position where we can secure that derogation when it expires at the end of 2025.”

Mr McConalogue said Mr Sinkevicius indicated he would “take up” the invitation when the two men met on Sunday.