Thursday 25 December 2014

Let's ask what EU can do for us while Hogan's there

Published 29/08/2014 | 02:30

The Big Debate: MEPs are split on Phil Hogan’s suitability for EU agriculture commissioner post.
The Big Debate: MEPs are split on Phil Hogan’s suitability for EU agriculture commissioner post.

Nomination to the EU Commission is often described as the biggest plum that any Taoiseach can hand out. Not all the recipients find it to their taste.

Sometimes it has gone to outstanding men who would move on to greater things. P J Hillery served two terms as President of Ireland. Peter Sutherland negotiated a world trade agreement and became chairman of Goldman Sachs.

Others sank without trace, and still others are remembered for a mixture of comedy and controversy.

Nobody who watched Padraig Flynn's "three houses" performance on the Late Late Show in 1999 will ever forget it. He complained - while at the same time boasting - about the expense caused to him by having three places of residence.

He spoke condescendingly about Tom Gilmartin, a property developer who had fallen out with the Fianna Fail party but refused to give evidence to one of the judicial tribunals investigating Fianna Fail-related scandals. A furious Mr Gilmartin reacted by reversing his decision and enthralling the country with his sensational evidence.

So delighted were the public that they forgot the part Mr Flynn had left out - the nature of his task in Brussels and how he went about performing it.

No wonder. Irish people have little knowledge of, or interest in, the workings of the EU Commission. At one time, they did have an intense interest in just one aspect, the flow of funds from Brussels to Dublin. That river has since dried up, and the citizens now view the Commission merely as a vast and incomprehensible bureaucracy.

Accordingly, interest in the functions, and indeed the identity, of our next commissioner centres, not on how he will perform in office but on his personality and record and the effect, if any, on domestic politics.

'Big Phil' Hogan, sometimes known as 'Cute Phil' Hogan, is certainly cute and he has a formidable personality. He has long been a towering figure in Fine Gael. Centrally, he has been credited with swinging the leadership contest of 2010 in favour of Enda Kenny.

This raises an obvious question. Why would the Taoiseach allow himself to lose a close friend and ally from his side in Dublin?

Not because of any controversy surrounding 'Cute' Phil's performance as Environment Minister, although one of his actions has lately provoked a furore. Irish Water looks like becoming a bureaucratic monster comparable to the Health Service Executive. We will have to pay twice as much for our water supplies as our neighbours in the North and Britain.

But it seems that the nomination was decided long before Irish Water became a focus for public anger. It is generally regarded as quite simply a reward for the minister's key part in putting down the attempted coup of 2010.

It could be worse. At least 'Cute' Phil is not being exiled as a device to get him out of the way, as happened with one or two Irish commissioners in the past. But one has to ask whether the Government, and the Taoiseach in particular, have considered some other important questions.

The President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, wants more women members. Indeed, he needs them. If the new Commission has fewer than eight, the European Parliament could vote to nullify the whole operation.

And the parliament is not demanding this quota out of mere "political correctness". Nobody can believe that eight well-qualified women cannot be found out of the European Union's 500 million population.

As it happens, right now the Taoiseach could find one of them in his own ranks. Mairead McGuinness has exactly the right qualifications for the portfolio Phil Hogan wants, Agriculture. Her electoral record shows that she enjoys public confidence. Oddly, she appears to be less popular within Fine Gael.

There are, however, bigger issues at stake, which have aroused virtually no interest in Ireland.

The Commission is composed on the basis of one member for each EU country, 28 in total. Far too many for efficiency. And far too many to give each member a worthwhile portfolio.

The relationships involving the Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers are a labyrinth. Attempts to make these institutions more democratic and more effective have not made much progress.

Notoriously, the Commission engages in nannyism of an extreme kind. Petty regulations annoy businesses and consumers. They may have forgotten its excellent record on consumer rights.

Jean-Claude Juncker, a man with vast experience, is determined to tackle these defects. But one question is beyond his scope, because it involves basic psychology. Commissioners assert their loyalty to European interests, but politicians instinctively put national interests first.

We can rest assured that Phil Hogan, or any Irish commissioner, will not neglect Irish farmers. And the Irish people will feel very comfortable with that certainty.

Which leaves the biggest question of all. The European institutions were originally designed for six countries. The bit-by-bit expansion to 28 nations has been carried out, especially in its late stages, with insufficient clarity about its aims.

It has brought in countries which differ enormously in history, wealth, development and stability. Unwieldy institutions flounder as they struggle to overcome a multitude of problems, from the economic morass to the Ukraine crisis to the threat of British withdrawal.

Europe needs better politicians. It also needs better - and fewer -bureaucrats. It does not need 28 commissioners, with or without three houses apiece.

Irish Independent

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