The Future of Europe event that the Irish Farmers Journal hosted in late June was well named. I say that because, as farmers, we tend to view the EU through the prism of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) . That is entirely understandable, but it underestimates the EU’s impact on the daily life and economic wellbeing of every farming and rural family.

Looking forward is, in many ways, a fool’s errand. Who in 2019 would have foreseen the transformation of the world, the EU included, that a pandemic would deliver? And as we cautiously emerged from two years of lockdown, Vladimir Putin decided to threaten the stability of Europe and the wider world with a bloody and entirely unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine.

So, fool that I am, here’s a quick look at some of the issues facing the EU as we celebrate 65 years since its formation, and 60 years of the CAP.

Danger lurks at the EU’s borders

The starting point is the EU itself and how it approaches these dangerous times. We firstly must acknowledge its diversity.

The 27 member states sprawl from Malin Head to Malta, from subtropical Lagos in Portugal to Lapland in Finland, within the Arctic Circle.

The 450m population dwarfs the US’s 330m. Our past history is complex, from colonisers (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium and Spain) to colonised and occupied (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ireland and Slovenia).

We speak 24 official languages. Ireland and Malta are the only member states that count English as an official language but it remains the shared tongue despite the UK’s decision to leave.

The political priorities naturally vary massively as you move across the continent. The east of Europe, which lived under the oppressive shadow of the USSR for 45 years, knows that Putin must be stopped, and stopped in Ukraine.

European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Janusz Wojciechowski meeting IFA president Tim Cullinan prior to addressing the IFA in May.

With Belarus little more than a puppet state of Russia under Alexander Lukashenko’s autocratic rule, Putin has a bridgehead right on to the EU’s borders. Does he want to regain a Baltic base with a land route through to it? You bet he does. Is he willing to attack EU member states like Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia to do that? We don’t know, but if the current surge in Ukraine is successful, it can’t be ruled out.

Similarly, he has a potential land route through southern Ukraine into Moldova, and may be eyeing it up. This former member of the USSR might not be part of the EU, but it does border Romania, which is a current Member State. Moldova, like Ukraine, last month formally applied for EU membership.

Spain and Portugal are furthest from Putin’s reach, but the economic effects of his aggression could destabilise the region adjacent to them – North Africa. We’ve seen it before. Rising bread prices in 2010 were blamed by many commentators for the popular protests which later became known as the the Arab Spring.


While we in Ireland venerate the humble potato, and rice is the carbohydrate of choice across much of Asia, wheat utterly dominates the landscape in North Africa and across the Arab gulf. Bread, pasta, cous-cous, noodles all come from wheat. And much of that wheat comes from Russia and Ukraine.

Christian Holzleitner, head of unit at DG Climate, and former European Commissioner Franz Fischler at the Irish Farmers Journal’s Future of Europe event in June.

Kris Kristofferson wasn’t wrong when he sang “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”. Even the most ruthless regimes lose control when starving people take to the streets. It was true of Paris in 1789, and there is a strong possibility that we will see it proven again across from Europe’s shores over the next 12 months.

Martin Heydon was the Minister (of State) who represented the Irish Government in the Lebanon, where our soldiers serve in a peacekeeping capacity, for St Patrick’s Day.

He was told that the vast majority of the wheat that is their staple food comes from Ukraine.

Three weeks into the invasion of Ukraine, they were very worried. We’re now over four months in. Those fears can only be increasing.

We see refugees pouring into the EU from all over Africa and Asia.

Any further political destabilisation of North Africa and countries like the Lebanon and Jordan will have serious implications for Europe.

We have responsibilities to the rest of the world that we cannot ignore.

Colonial legacy

Culturally, we in Ireland only look at colonisation from the perspective of the colonised, and all the legacy that brings. Across the EU exists a very different history and perspective.

While the UK was in the EU, a map of the world showing all the countries colonised by EU members would have shown the reach of France, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal and the UK itself.

All of North and South America, and all of the African continent bar Ethiopia and Liberia, were at one time or other under the rule of European invaders.

Most of the Middle East, with the exception of Iran, was colonised. Similarily, all of Asia bar China, Japan, Korea, Nepal and Mongolia have felt the yoke of oppression.

So, what has this to do with today? There are political ties and economic debts that are sometimes, though not always honoured. Algeria, Syria and much of west Africa have close ties to France, as just one example. The profile of a country’ immigrants often provides a window into its shadowy past.

Football fans will recognise that many players from former colonies begin life in Europe in the former motherland. Didier Drogba, like most players from Cote D’Ivoire, first played in France.

The Davids/Seedorf midfield that anchored a great Ajax and Dutch team were born in Suriname. Hosts of Brazilians rock up in Portugal for more reasons than the climate.

Moral responsibility

Europe has a moral responsibility to countries it robbed of resources. And it’s not all a legacy of the nineteenth century either.

It could be argued that the recent destabilisation of the Arab region directly links back to the second Gulf War.

The decision of the “coalition of the willing” to support the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan in response to 9/11 can be judged by historians.

However, there is a clear line from the rise of ISIS, the war waged by Assad in Syria against his own people, where Putin and Russia gained strength and confidence, to today’s European conflicts.

The refugee crisis Europe is dealing with is in many ways a consequence of the actions of some member states.

Unfortunately, despite Lapland’s presence within the Union, there is no Santa Claus or magic money tree when it comes to the EU’s budget. Every penny that the EU spends must come from within the coffers of the member states. And the budgetary demands have never been higher.

The refugee crisis and the need to supply humanitarian aid abroad I have already highlighted.

The invasion of Ukraine is merely the latest, closest and most impactful on us of the events that have precipitated a refugee crisis.

In tandem with housing, feeding and clothing refugees, current events have given rise to escalating calls for the EU to defend itself. This cuts deep. The original aim of the EEC (European Economic Community) was to bring former enemies together in a mutually beneficial co-operative community of nations.

In this regard, the European project has been wildly successful. But now extreme moderates like Brigid Laffan are calling for the EU to have the means to defend its collective border.

Brigid Laffan, who spoke at the Future of Europe event of the need for Europe to be able to defend itself.

These two new demands on the EU’s budget are competing directly with the CAP for funding. And we must also add climate change to the EU’s list of priorities. In fact, it is at the top. Again, in Ireland we are less affected by global warming than other parts of the EU. The aforementioned Lapland hit 34.70C (94.5 Fahrenheit) last summer – hotter than it’s ever been in Ireland.

The sea is rising along the Lithuanian coastline at an alarming rate.

Droughts threaten food production along the Mediterranean.

Forest fires, once associated with southern Europe, now affect Scandinavian countries too, and take out an area bigger than Luxembourg every year (think Clare). So climate change is not just about the Maldives or Brazil, it is directly and profoundly affecting EU countries too.

CAP must face in two directions

And what of the CAP itself? Much like some ancient monster, it has always been a many-headed beast. Founded by people who remembered starvation as well as war, it set out to stabilise rural economies and societies, and to deliver an inexhaustible supply of quality food at affordable prices.

The impact of food production on the wider natural world, whether air quality, water quality, or biodiversity, is under the microscope.

Supply-side supports were the key. Initially market-oriented, like intervention at guaranteed prices and export refunds, these evolved to farm commodity supports, then quotas as the CAP proved too successful with food mountains and wine lakes.

The Fischler decoupling of payments to an area-based system is now evolving to where a flat land payment is augmented by environmental payments.

This breaks the link between production and support, because even Fischler’s reforms saw higher payments to historically more productive farms and regions.

It’s not just global warming that is prompting this evolution of the CAP. The impact of food production on the wider natural world, whether air quality, water quality, or biodiversity of flora, fauna, microbes, insects, birds and wild animals is under the microscope.

But now, suddenly, Brussels is waking up to the reality that food production is not a given.

The vast Ukrainian plains supplied a disproportionate amount of the world’s traded grain. Markets have gone a bit mad in the last 12 months. The inputs we rely upon to produce our own food have doubled in price.

How can the CAP maintain its Farm to Fork strategy, and fund it, while buttressing current food production levels and perhaps incentivising extra production until the world regains some form of equilibrium?

Extra funding is being called for, but the reality is that a post-Covid-19 European economy is facing a literal winter of recession.

The competing demands of refugees, defence/security and climate change mitigation will test the EU’s resources like never before.

But here’s the rub. A shortage of food will exacerbate the humanitarian crisis within the EU and outside it. A shortage of food will exacerbate political and civil unrest across Africa and Asia. Europe will afford to pay for food. It is the most affluent political entity on the planet, but we will have to cope with the fallout in those places we take food from if there isn’t enough.

And a shortage of food will force people across the planet to burn forests to plant crops, or replace grassland with crops the people can eat, leading to desertification. Or overfishing and hunting for food of vulnerable species. So a shortage of food in Europe will worsen the climate and biodiversity crises.

What does it mean? It means Commissioner Wojciechowski will need the wisdom of Solomon to marry these competing demands of the CAP, which are ultimately co-dependent. And farmers are at the heart of any solutions he comes up with.

Food production will be at the heart of a thriving and peaceful European Union

Farming has never mattered more. That is a responsibility and a burden that we can wear with pride. Must we change? Yes, but farming has been evolving since Europe was settled.

Should we fear change? Of course not, but we must lead the debate, whether it’s on what is achievable in terms of reducing our carbon footprint and how, in terms of harnessing all modern technology to minimise the impact of food production, whether that’s gene editing/CRISPR of crops and grasses or GPS-controlled targeted application of inputs using yield maps or camera recognition of canopy thickness.

Food production will be at the heart of a thriving and peaceful European Union, which can be a beacon of freedom and prosperity for the entire world.

Same as it ever was, since the very beginning.