LIFE is getting back to normal in Brussels after the country was put on its highest alert on November 21st as the security services warned the public to avoid crowds because of a ‘serious and imminent’ threat of a Paris-style attack.
There is still heightened security, with police, armed officers and armoured vehicles positioned at street corners, while the brother of one of the suicide bombers in Paris is still on the run. I am taking all the necessary precautions to stay out of harm’s way – avoiding the subway and no more concerts or shopping trips for me in the run-up to Christmas.
But the tense atmosphere did not stop over 400 delegates attending the first ever Agricultural Outlook Conference on December 1st and 2nd. The guest of honour was the US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who pledged to inject new impetus into ongoing EU-US trade talks, with a view to securing a deal before the end of next year – before President Barack Obama leaves office.
For his part, Commissioner Phil Hogan called for a ‘good, balanced agreement,’ but he conceded that ‘agriculture is a real challenge as the US is very competitive in sectors where we have higher costs.’ During these international trade negotiations, the real horse-trading in the agri-food sector is left until the eleventh hour and is thrashed out at the highest political level.
In other news, the Irish Department of Agriculture faces a hefty fine of €68.9 million for deficiencies in its Land Parcel Identification System (LPIS) that governs all area-related payments and late on-the-spot checks in the latest Clearance of Accounts procedure adopted on November 20th. The Commission is clawing back just over €284 million in EU agricultural policy funds unduly spent by Member States – but the net financial impact is somewhat lower at €276 million as some of the fines have already been retrieved from national capitals.
The unusually high’ figures – especially in Ireland – are the result of numerous corrections that have accumulated over a number of years (2009-2015). In terms of the impact this penalty will have on farmers, the answer is not very clear-cut. But if a farmer received more money that he should have in the Single Farm Payment, after including ineligible land such as roadways, scrub and farmhouses that went unchecked by the authorities, then his/her direct support will be reduced the following year.
The ‘modalities for repayment of the correction are currently being examined by the Department,’ while Dublin has the option to stagger payments over a number of years, officials confirm. The Commission conducts more than 100 audits every year, verifying that countries’ controls and responses to shortcomings are sufficient – it is about making sure taxpayers’ money is spent properly, Brussels officials add.
* Rose O’Donovan is the Editor-in-Chief of the Brussels-based publication AGRA FACTS & a regular contributor to the video platform www.vieuws.eu