Farmers are planning the latest phase of their campaign of protest around county council offices, with the first protest taking place in Waterford on Friday night 16 February.

We need to ask who is primarily responsible for fuelling the frustration of farmers. Who are the original agents of the endless layering on of new regulations, new compliance measures that are ever more complex, ever more difficult to relate to. At times they are overlapping, sometimes even contradictory.

The answer lies in Brussels, not on the banks of the Suir.

While farmers make their voice heard to councillors around the country, there is little doubt that they place most of the blame for what they see as the overregulation of farming on a much higher layer of power.

They blame Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue, the Department of Agriculture and national government more than they blame local government. But their main ire is directed against Brussels and most particularly the European Commission - the unelected bureaucrats.

Is this fair? Remember, it’s the elected representatives who pass legislation. Let’s take a quick look at how that happens - it’s quite illuminating.

Co-decision the key

Most EU legislation is decided by the three different legs of the European stool (add your own scatological pun if you want, I’m refraining) working together.

Let’s take the nature restoration law as an example. Firstly, the European Commission drafts a proposal. It is then considered by the relevant committee of the European Parliament - in this case the Environment Committee.

A rapporteur - an MEP selected by agreement - acts as the advocate for the proposals, adding amendments that reflect the political perspective of themselves and the political grouping they come from.

A shadow rapporteur, usually from an opposing political grouping to the rapporteur, proposes further amendments. These are voted on at committee level and then in a full plenary session of the entire parliament.

In tandem with all this, the council of relevant ministers from the 27 member states are also meeting and discussing the commission’s proposals. They come up with their own counter-proposals.

For instance, last summer, we saw the agriculture ministerial council agree to lower targets for rewetting than the Commission’s nature restoration proposal envisaged.

The parliament eventually voted for those lower targets and the ministers' support ensured co-decision.

Complicating factor

A further complicating factor for farming is that many issues straddle a few committees and ministerial portfolios.

The nature restoration law involved Minister of State with responsibility for nature, heritage and electoral reform Malcolm Noonan in the Department of Housing as the lead negotiator for Ireland. It also involved Eamon Ryan as Minister for the Environment and Charlie McConalogue as Minister for Agriculture.

While it was McConalogue and his agriculture ministerial counterparts who did the heavy lifting on the rewetting targets, it will be Noonan and Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien’s responsibility to deliver the legislation at national level.

This co-decision system means that national governments, who have to buy in and deliver national legislation in line with European laws, have an active part in the delivery of those laws. So, the system is working, right?

Not entirely. We can see the level of unrest that exists, not just among farmers, but among large sections of society, with large elements of the broad thrust of EU policy and how it impacts on the daily lives of the 448 million citizens of the 27 member states.

A law making machine

At national parliament level, the Dáil and Seanad pass legislation. While some legislation is drafted by individual TDs through private members' motions, most of it is proposed by ministers. This would primarily have been drafted by civil servants in their department.

Of course, Government departments do much more than draft legislation, managing budgets and directly overseeing the provision of many services.

It’s a little different in Brussels. Yes, the European Commission has some executive functions, primarily in managing the EU’s multi-billion budget.

However, the actual spending is mostly done by the government departments within the member states. This means a large proportion of the European Commission’s time is spent drafting legislation and overseeing how effectively the various member states are implementing that legislation.

In essence, the European Commission is an enormous machine designed to create legislative proposals, anchor negotiations and horse-trading within and between the ministerial council and the parliament, and then act as a watchdog over, for example, how vigorously Ireland’s Department of Agriculture is monitoring the eligibility of clumps of scrubland in Irish fields for direct payment (gone now as an issue, thank heavens).

Technocrats and bureaucrats

There are about 32,000 people working in the European Commission, a vast army of technocrats and bureaucrats and lawyers and accountants and experts of every hue. This is a well-resourced, sleek machine that churns out an Amazon rainforest of paper in a couple of dozen languages on any and every issue.

And it is very good at doing what it has been designed to do. But a lot of people feel that the Commission is now out of control. It doesn’t really understand the impact of the regime delivered by the combination of all the different regulations.

Farmers are the ones who are most impacted on a daily basis by the legislative legacy of the Commission

And farmers feel this more than anyone else in society, because farmers are the ones who are most impacted on a daily basis by the legislative legacy of the Commission. And now they are standing up and telling the Commission that enough is enough.

On Friday evening, 300 tractors rolled into Waterford to make this exact point. I’ll be honest, I thought the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) was going with a second demonstration too soon after the previous one, particularly as farmers are incredibly busy at home in the maternity wards that farmyards become in February.

But I underestimated the level of determination among farmers to send a message to the top that they need room to breathe. Waterford County Council's offices might not be the Dáil or the Berlaymont in Brussels, but when local authority personnel visit a farmyard, they are inevitably enforcing EU legislation.

The farmers of Waterford, Kilkenny and Wexford - indeed the farmers of Europe - are publicly stating that they are the immovable object, who will not be pushed out of food production by the irresistible force that is the European Commission.


We have an interesting stand-off now. On one side is the Commission, which feels that farming has overreached and needs to dial back for the good of society. And on the other side we have farmers, from Ventry to Vilnius, who believe that the bureaucrats have overreached and need to dial back for the good of society.

That the machine designed to make more rules needs to understand that there are enough laws for the minute, that what is needed is a little time to implement them at ground level. It’s not as easy as it looks on paper - nothing is.

Ursula von der Leyen has established a strategic dialogue on the future of EU dialogue, which will deliver a template for food production and land use for the next Commission and Parliament.

And farmers need to be conveying this message in that forum, calmly, logically and convincingly. Because the mindset change required for bureaucrats to stop producing new and ever-more restrictive laws is significant.

It’s as fundamental a shift as asking farmers to set land aside from food production.

It's time for the Commission to look in the mirror and tell themselves what they are telling farmers for years now. Perhaps less is more.