Irish farmers flex muscles in Lisbon Treaty referendum

The WTO negotiations have become a live issue in Irish politics because Ireland is the only EU country which will hold a referendum to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, and the campaign provides an opportunity for interest groups to maximise their bargaining strength. For example, farm groups who are traditionally pro-EU in referendum votes have threatened to campaign against the Lisbon Treaty not because of the content of the Treaty but because of their dissatisfaction with the way they see Peter Mandelson as EU Trade Commissioner handling the WTO negotiations.

Padraig Walshe, President of the Irish Farmers’ Association, the largest of the Irish farm groups, gave a not-so-veiled warning recently when he noted that “it would be unrealistic to expect the farming community and rural people to vote for the Lisbon Treaty while Mandelson is planning the destruction of the Irish and European family farm structure.”

The Irish Parliament had an opportunity to debate the current state of the WTO trade negotiations last week. The opening speech on the Government side was made by the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Mary Coughlan. The Minister in her contribution underlined her dissatisfaction with the negotiating strategy of the Commission. Her position is that agriculture is being asked to bear a disproportionate burden in the negotiations, and that the European agrifood sector must not be sacrificed for the sake of a deal.

What was striking in the subsequent contributions was that no political party or representative was prepared to question the perceived ‘national interest’ on this issue. Indeed, the main Opposition spokesperson opened his contribution by noted that “we do not often have an opportunity [in the Parliament] to sing from the same hymn sheet in respect of the national interest.”

It is not only the WTO which is galvanising debate on the Lisbon Treaty. Local farm leaders have also linked the re-opening of the EU market to Brazilian beef to farmer support for the Treaty. The Irish referendum will probably take place at the beginning of June. Whether the treaty is approved or not will very likely depend on the strength of feeling regarding these local issues and concerns, rather than the merits or demerits of the document itself.

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