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Saturday 24 February 2018

Opinion: From Leinster House bruiser to subtle master of diplomacy

EU Commissioner Phil Hogan. Photo: Doug O'Connor
EU Commissioner Phil Hogan. Photo: Doug O'Connor
John Downing

John Downing

"Big EU negotiations begin with a flourish of high diplomacy and end with a big dirty row about fish quotas." That old Brussels maxim ain't old for nothing.

Some 25 years ago the then EU Agriculture Commissioner, Ray MacSharry, learnt the relevance of the maxim when he concluded the first major overhaul of the Common Agriculture Policy after 48 hours of straight-through negotiations in Brussels. When it seemed everybody was done and could live with the outcome, the Italian Agriculture Minister popped up to seek a special deal for his country because they had not bothered implementing milk quotas for many years.

Squalid though it looked to some, the Italians had to get a special deal. There was no other way round things.

Such thoughts came to mind again this week reading of the exploits of EU Commissioner, Phil Hogan, in his role concluding the world's biggest trade deal between the EU and Japan. In the end it all came down to a soft Japanese cheese from the island of Hokkaido which is called "Sakura," flavoured with cherry leaves, and apparently a famous delicacy in that part of the world.

The cornerstone of this deal would appear a delight to Irish farmers: it is a trade-off between opening Japan's market of almost 130 million people to EU farm produce, and allowing Japan sell more cars into Europe. You would say it was a "win-win" for an Irish dairy farmer who likes to drive a Toyota.

Japan's agriculture minister, Yuji Yamamoto, said he had nowhere to go on this one. He had the powerful Japanese farm cooperatives on his case.

Happily, Phil Hogan, recalled around Leinster House as something of a political bruiser when the going got tough, played a subtle hand, telling the Japanese Minister he knew the potential wrath of Irish dairy farmers in such circumstances. He offered to cut the quotas for EU soft cheese sales in Japan - provided quotas for hard cheeses like cheddar and other dairy products were increased.

Everyone sat back and held their collective breath. The Japanese delegation accepted and the deal was well on the way to being done.

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This was hailed by Brussels diplomats as something of a coup for Phil Hogan who is seen as a hard grafter and high achiever within the EU Commission. He had arrived in Tokyo with the EU Trade Commissioner, Cecilia Malmstrom of Sweden, and gone from the airport into what turned into 18 hours of talks shoehorned into two bits of days.

Access to such a vast market is a huge boon to EU farmers. But to get there they had to overcome huge opposition in Tokyo where there were fears for the future of small isolated rural communities in remote parts of Japan.

The far-ranging deal took two years to put together. It might not have happened at all had not the isolationist US President Donald Trump pulled out of the so-called Trans Pacific Partnership with Japan and a dozen other far east states.

Good news for Irish farmers is that Japan will take around 50,000 tonnes of beef per year with tariffs cut by 30pc to 9pc over 15 years. Japan had worked out their stance preparing for a US deal, opened with an offer of 3,000 tonnes.

Duties on EU pork exports will be phased out over 10 years. Wine exports are expected to be duty-free by 2019.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent


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