'Everything we do is geared to help the basic family farm' - Phil Hogan on CAP reform
Phil Hogan talks to John Downing about the direction of CAP reform and his ambitions to serve another five years in the Brussels hotseat
Phil Hogan is gone from Irish politics for more than four years. But he still has strong and critical views on things like Ireland's recent alcohol control legislation.
He is concerned about evidence of Russian interference in democratic elections in the western world, especially ahead of European Parliament elections due next June. And he thinks Ireland has too many farming organisations which weaken the farmers' lobbying power.
All the signs are that Phil Hogan is staying in the EU's policy-guiding executive in Brussels for another five years taking him up to November 2024. But he is clearly determined not to presume anything ahead of the new EU Commission nominations due next summer.
"I have said I would like another term. It's a decision for the Taoiseach and we have yet to discuss the matter. I believe he will talk to me ahead of a European Council due next June which will discuss the appointment of the new Commission," he says matter-of-factly when we ask.
But he is keen to discuss his track record over the past four years and outline his views on the future of EU farm policy which still accounts for 38pc of the EU's annual €150bn budget. Assuming a new five-year term is confirmed, he would be happy to continue in charge of agriculture - others tip him for another post also with real powers such as international trade.
His case for promotion is probably enhanced by the likelihood that he will be one of half a dozen out of the current 27 Commissioners expected to have their term renewed. That also raises the prospect of him getting a prestigious title of Commission vice-president.
He departed Irish politics in October 2014 bearing the mark of the beast having effectively put his name on two new taxes: the ill-starred water charges and the local property tax. Unsurprisingly, that dented his national popularity.
On the other hand, given the importance of farming economically and culturally to Ireland, there were still high expectations when it emerged that he had secured the EU agriculture portfolio. But his first days in Brussels were a reminder that he was the European Commissioner who happens to come from Ireland.
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine had led to a trade embargo which hit farmers in the former East Bloc very hard. It was his first big test as it had suddenly obviated a market estimated at €5.3bn for EU farmers.
The EU put up €1.7bn in supports for farmers and made 32 specific policy changes. It took until the middle of 2016 for markets to stabilise but Hogan had by then impressed his counterparts in EU agriland with his capacity to manage through.
By then, the vote on Brexit - a topic which permeates all discussions in the EU right now - had happened. The immediate and continuing issue for the Agriculture Commissioner was that it blew a huge €12bn-per-year hole in the EU budget, raising huge doubts about the future of farm funding.
How do farm budget matters stand now?
He argues that the 2020-2026 draft budget, published last May by EU budget commissioner, Gunther Oettinger of Germany, accounts for 96pc of the current farm budget. It must be agreed unanimously by the EU member states - something which will not be seriously broached until the major changing of the guard, in both the EU Commission and European Parliament, is completed next autumn.
As usual countries like Austria, Sweden, Netherlands and Denmark have laid down their objections to the scale of the EU farm budget. And already 96pc of the current spend is a rowback when you consider future inflation.
But Hogan argues that it is not a bad realpolitik position when you consider not just Brexit losses but also increased demands for EU spending on defence, to face cyber-attacks and terrorism, along with efforts to meet the huge migration challenges. Others will argue that Ireland is among the countries which will have to contribute more while also moderating its expectations from both the farming and regional and social funds.
"But if those countries doubtful about farm funding want support for things like defence and migration, then they will also have to compromise on agriculture," he says.
He insists that the focus of EU farm policy has to continue to favour the "family farm model" It must also involve more supports for young farmers to address the worrying trend of too few young people coming into the business.
"We have an ageing population of farmers, the average age in Ireland is 57. It is a difficult occupation and young people these days have other options," he says.
The focus has to be on more installation grants and low-interest loans, with top-grants for farmers in charge of their holding aged under 40.
He is especially proud of his work-in-progress for which he has got political approval in the European Parliament.
It aims to put in a floor of guaranteed rights for farmers in their ongoing unequal relationship with food processors and retailers.
The draft law will outlaw late payments for perishable food products, last-minute order cancellations, unilateral or retroactive changes to contracts, forcing the supplier to pay for wasted products and refusing written contracts.
It was something he argued for at his successful ratification hearings in the European Parliament in September 2014 but it had never been done before by the EU. He hopes to enhance it with measures for more transparency on pricing and costs in the food chain.
Phil Hogan is rated by the movers and shakers in Brussels and is still well got with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. It is known that he helped Varadkar in his successful Fine Gael leadership campaign in summer 2017 as he still has influence in the party. There are many strong arguments for renewing his appointment and he has done his duty by Ireland in helping oil the Brussels wheels on many issues. He has also delivered wise counsel on Brexit.
But the relationship is not all sweetness and light. He remains insistent that Ireland must address its "laggard image" on climate change which has been publicly acknowledged by the Taoiseach.
He sees heavy fines looming soon for this country if better results are not achieved.
He acknowledges the problems in the Irish beef sector but is not convinced that this requires drastic reductions in numbers of farmers engaged in the business and heavily dependent on EU subsidies for all their income. "It is only to be expected that certain sectors in farming will experience difficulties from time to time. Everything we do in the EU is geared to help the basic family farm unit," he argues.
There are other points of tension with Dublin. He makes no secret of his annoyance at the recent legislation controlling the sale of alcohol.
Hogan is especially concerned that this may cause problems for the single market. "I appreciate that the legislation was framed on health grounds. But measures for warnings on labels risk going against single market rules and can harm small businesses. It would have been far preferable to await EU-wide labelling regulations," he argues.
The forthcoming European Parliament elections are also a matter of concern. Phil Hogan believes there is evidence that Russia has engaged in interference in elections in other EU member states. There is now a risk that this could be repeated in these elections due in late May.
"The EU is very conscious about the interference of Russia in national elections. We must re-double efforts for cyber-security for this European Parliament campaign," he says.
That threat could compound the risk of anti-EU parties on the far right and far left making considerable gains.
He believes the old coalition model of cooperation between the Christian Democrats and Socialists, which has run the assembly for four decades, will probably have to be re-thought.
"There will very probably have to be a broad coalition of parties which support the EU, including groups like the Liberals and Greens," he reflects.
In Ireland he believes there are big opportunities for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil as well as Sinn Féin. But he is loath to speculate about the country whose politics he knows best.
Another issue which has preoccupied him since he began in Brussels in 2014 is the numbers of Irish officials with senior jobs inside the EU apparatus. For decades Ireland punched above its weight in that regard and had considerable influence within the EU for that reason.
This country provided two very highly-regarded heads of the EU Commission with Catherine Day and Philip O'Sullivan.
Inevitably, the passage of time and retirements from senior posts have diminished this along with the enlargement of the EU to 27 member states. This has now been compounded by the numbers of UK officials in the EU who are seeking to change nationality via a long-lost Irish granny.
"I am working with Ireland's ambassador to the EU, Declan Kelleher, on this issue and I believe we can make progress."
Farmers need a united front when lobbying Brussels
Phil Hogan concedes he may be making a rod for his own back by talking about the need for fewer and larger Irish farmer organisations. But does he agree with MEP Seán Kelly that there is a dangerous fragmentation which risks undermining their effectiveness.
At last count these entities included: the Irish Farmers' Association, the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers' Association, the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers' Association, Macra na Feirme, the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers' Association, the Irish Grain Growers' Group, the Irish Family Farm Rights Group, and, most recently, the Beef Plan Movement.
"I would not presume to tell farmers how to do their business and it's really a matter for them. But a strong representational voice for Irish farmers remains very important. It is very important that when farmers engage in lobbying that they do so from a position of strength," he argues.
The EU Agriculture Commissioner is equally unrepentant about controversial changes to Leader programmes which he put in place while he was Environment Minister. These irked many of the Leader organisations because they gave a role to local authorities in the process.
Some of the organisations complained that it introduced "more bureaucracy" and limited their scope. "I was concerned that the running costs of many Leader organisations were too high - up to 25pc where they should have been nearer 10pc," he argues.
"I stand over the changes I made and I believe they reduced running costs and improved transparency. They also generated more synergies between councils and the communities. I think you will find that more money was spent as part of all this and that it was beneficial," he continues.
Another project dear to his heart involved former Concern boss, Tom Arnold, who is heading a project to improve food efficiency in Africa which may also reduce migrant numbers coming to the EU.
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