The European Commission has apparently contradicted legal advice received by the chair of the Stormont agriculture committee after it said that a law which guarantees minimum prices for farmers “may be allowed” for Northern Ireland.
Lobby group Farmers For Action is pressing for the measure to guarantee “a minimum wage” for farming families.
Last month, Stormont agriculture committee chairman William Irwin told the News Letter that legal advice suggested the idea was impossible.
“The difficulty is that we in the Assembly took legal advice and were told this law is not possible under European rules,” he said.
However, the News Letter then approached the European Commission, and was told by a spokesman: “For your information while minimum prices are not allowed in general, they may be allowed under certain conditions.
“For example, minimum alcohol prices may be justified in certain circumstances for public health purposes.”
Upon reading the commission’s statement Mr Irwin did not defend the legal advice he had been given.
“The DUP will support measures to assist farmers which are legal, practical and deliverable,” he said.
“Whilst some have advocated legislation to guarantee a minimum price to farmers, this is by no means a universally held view within the industry.
“Indeed, many have outlined significant concerns beyond any legal impediment.
“Around 80 per cent of our produce is exported and if such pricing made Northern Ireland produce less competitive it will not be to the benefit of local farmers.
“No-one would question the positive motivation behind such a proposal.
“However, the industry, banking sector and government need to continue to work together to ensure farmers survive and receive a fair reward for their efforts.”
William Taylor, Farmers For Action NI co-ordinator, was upbeat about the European Commission’s assessment.
“The question now is how soon we can get the legislation in place – before it is too late,” he said.
He believes that the commercial supply chain is growing increasingly wealthy while farmers are crushed.
The law would still leave Northern Ireland produce competitive, he said, because there is no extra food in the supply chain, so processors across the British Isles have no choice but to buy all produce.
TUV leader Jim Allister said: “Obtaining greater stability in farmgate prices is key to success, with processors, banks and government all having to play their part.
“Hence, radical thinking should not be eschewed, though current EU competition laws probably prohibit the statutory minimum pricing that some desire.
“Outside the EU we’d be master of our own legislation and destiny.”