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Coughlan Maintains Strong WTO Stance At Council Of Ministers

Speaking at a meeting of EU Agriculture Ministers today, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Mary Coughlan T.D., has described the world trade talks as "representing a serious threat to EU and Irish agriculture".

The Minister said that there were clear indications that the negotiations between over 150 countries in Geneva may be reaching a critical point. The EU is represented in the talks, which are now in their seventh year, by the European Commission.

"There is a real danger that, in an effort to get a deal before the US presidential elections, there will be a temptation to agree concessions on agriculture which would be severely damaging to farming and the food industry in this country and throughout Europe. This must be firmly resisted, and I and my Government colleagues have been and are working hard to build the widest possible alliance to prevent this happening."

The Minister said that Ireland has major concerns in relation to imports of beef and dairy products into the EU. "My worries in this regard have not been eased by the Commission, which accepts that there will be a major increase in imports into the EU if a deal is done along the lines currently on the table". The Minister said that it was hugely important that important sectors such as beef and dairy received the necessary protection. "The European beef sector could not possibly survive the 70% tariff cut which is on the table in Geneva, and must therefore be treated as a "sensitive product" as provided for in WTO rules. While this is widely accepted, it is vital that sensitive product status must deliver real and effective protection. Some proposals now being touted could seriously undermine this."

The Minister said that Ireland has strongly pressed its case in relation to the beef and dairy sectors in a wide-ranging set of contacts, throughout the EU and elsewhere in the world, as well as in every available official forum in the EU and at WTO, most recently by the Taoiseach at the European Council last week. Other Member States have expressed equally serious concerns about other aspects of what is on the table.

Another key feature of the talks are the proposals to reduce domestic supports to agriculture. Most of the supports received by Irish farmers are classified in a "green box" which is not subject to such reductions."I remain concerned about the current proposals to change the terms of what qualifies as green box. While the Commission have suggested that this is not problematical, I am not prepared to accept anything that raises any doubts in relation to this matter. Irish farmers receive almost €2 billion each year in direct payments, which represents about three-quarters of their income, and I am not willing to take any risks with that. I want a categorical assurance on this matter."

"Overall I believe that the EU needs to seriously consider whether an agreement on the basis of the current proposals is in the interests of Europe. We must not agree a deal that sacrifices EU agriculture. We need to show unity and determination in this regard," the Minister said.

Noting that her Department had kept key Irish interests fully informed of developments, she said she believed it was particularly important that Ireland had led the way in displaying a clear national consensus on this issue.

The Minister concluded that the Irish Government has been committed and coherent in its position on WTO since the outset of this round of negotiations.

Date Released: 17 March 2008