Friday 18 October 2019

Bruiser Hogan turns his hand to trade

Negotiating an EU-UK trade deal after Brexit will be at the top of the new Trade Commissioner's in-tray, writes Ailish O'Hora

Phil Hogan, the EU’s next Trade Commissioner. Photo: David Conachy
Phil Hogan, the EU’s next Trade Commissioner. Photo: David Conachy

Ailish O'Hora

Newly appointed EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan is looking pretty chuffed with himself as he is congratulated by one elderly wellwisher in the sunlit foyer of Dublin's Herbert Park Hotel on a Friday afternoon.

So well he may be. For the past five years he has worked in Brussels in the role of Agriculture Commissioner and has proved himself a tough operator in negotiating the controversial Mercosur deal, central to securing his new position which will involve negotiating with the UK post-Brexit, whatever form it takes, as well as navigating the choppy waters of the US-China trade wars.

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While the trade deal in principle between the EU and the Mercosur countries - Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay - will take years to complete, it already has cash-strapped Irish farmers fearful of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of cheap South American meat flooding into Ireland and the EU, and he and Taoiseach Leo Varakar, who nominated Hogan for the trade role, could be on a collision course over it in the future.

Either way, Hogan admits his five-year stint in Brussels as Agriculture Commissioner gave him a bit of a steal in securing the new role.

"In the agriculture role, I've been involved in dealing with negotiations that were quite difficult in places like Japan and Mexico and Mercosur and that gave me a bit of a head-start than others in getting the role. There always has to be something for both parties in any deal and this is the strategic way I have always approached negotiations," says Hogan.

"I like to develop trust with my interlocutors and a feeling that people will feel comfortable when I do promise to deliver on a particular policy position or any area of concern to the negotiations that I will deliver."

He also admitted that strong relationships with key European players such as outgoing EU Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker and chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier also did him little harm in his first stint in Brussels.

"Absolutely, I'm a people person. And I'm a good networker. I've also networked with people in the Commission to ensure we have EU solidarity in respect of Ireland's talks with the UK."

These skills will be put to good use in relation to Brexit, sooner rather than later. And no matter what the outcome of Brexit, hard or soft, part of Hogan's remit will be to negotiate a trade agreement with the UK afterwards.

While Hogan has been quite scathing in the past of Brexiteers and, indeed, UK prime minister Boris Johnson in the past, he seems to have toned down that rhetoric more recently. Is it because he sniffs a deal in the air?

"I think that Mr Johnson has a theatrical way of behaving but beneath that he clearly has some ideas about how these issues - the three main points of the Good Friday Agreement, citizens' rights and the financial settlement - can be moved on. I think there's huge pressure on Johnson to do a deal in order to ensure he remains prime minister.

"And he is under pressure to do a deal by October 14. This is going to be a very important few weeks in our history but it also depends on what moves the UK are prepared to make. It's not in our control but our reaction to it is," Hogan said.

Johnson is due to meet Juncker in Luxembourg next week, and Hogan is optimistic this could be the start of a new dawn in talks.

"I hope in the next week that he and his team will start to engage constructively rather than dealing with issues other than the low-hanging fruit variety. I think the penny has dropped on the UK side that the consequences of a no-deal would not be good for the UK, Ireland, or indeed, the EU.

"Also, from the EU side we are always prepared to look at the future declaration, the political objectives that can be agreed between the UK and the EU, over a period of time."

Brexit is not the only issue at the top of his inbox. He will also be dealing with the Trump administration in relation to the US trade war with China, among other things. And he had a strong message for US President Donald Trump ahead of his intended visit to Washington later this year.

"So long as Mr Trump wants to retain a protectionist policy on behalf of the US, the EU will continue to open new markets and opportunities around the world. We have succeeded in doing 12 deals in the last few years in the EU like Japan and Mercosur. We are now a strengthened entity while the US, as an economic entity, is under pressure. It's disappointing that the US treats the EU as a security risk instead of dealing with us on the issues that are of concern to both of us about China and we would also like to see them as allies when it comes to World Trade Organisation rules.

"We have so many common issues but regrettably Mr Trump has decided to strike out on a unilateral basis. I have already done business with the trade negotiator in the US, Robert Lighthizer, and I intend to meet him in Washington before the end of the year."

Brexit and trade wars aside, Hogan keeps a keen eye on the domestic scene, both political and economic, and he believes Irish people are savvy enough to realise that a "Brexit budget" is the way to go when Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe stands up in the Dáil in October and he welcomed Donohoe's recent "prudent" stance on the economy.

"I think people don't want to go back to the irresponsible policies of the past, the spendthrift policies of the past. They are not stupid people, the Irish people, they understand that we have a difficulty, that we have worries. Like any family, we have to go through a period of entrenchment. We are after going through a horrendous time in this country where 250,000 people lost their jobs and a 10pc reduction in GNP. The people have made all the sacrifices and they don't want to go through it again. They will be expecting prudence in the financial situation," he says.

And he has sympathy for the situation beef farmers currently face over prices, which has left the industry in its worst position for the last 40 years. "Farmers are certainly going through a very hard time in the beef sector and this is why I helped to provide up to €100m in a financial support package for farmers.

"It a major opportunity to get some income for the families involved in the sector when they need it. The meat industry has to look at improving the prices because they are 14c a kilogram behind the EU average here in Ireland. There's obviously a clear problem here with the divergence in price. This is not acceptable," he said.

He is also keeping a keen eye on Varadkar, the man he backed as leader of Fine Gael.

"I think he's doing well. He's there over two years now and has come through some social and economic issues fairly successfully and, of course, with any government there are issues but I think the spotlight now will be on the leadership he provides in relation to Brexit," he says.

"He has wonderful connections in the European Union, he is using them to the maximum with quiet diplomacy and he and the Tánaiste are a successful team in order to have a soft landing for the Irish economy. The Taoiseach, at prime ministerial level, in dealing with players like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, at this level it is hugely important that they understand the position of Ireland and the consequences if anything went badly wrong."

Looking to an upcoming election, he says the Government will have to put forward its case on the good work it has done over the past few years despite mistakes like the cost over-run at the new National Children's Hospital. "There have been many projects over the years that we would have liked to have come in under budget rather than over-budget. But I really think this Government's work will be defined by Brexit. It will be defined, either on a positive or negative basis, by Brexit."

Hogan has the look of a man who is in the right place and at peace with himself - not quite in keeping with "bruiser" and "enforcer" monikers normally associated with him.

He's enjoying life in Brussels and comes home every six weeks. "Brussels is a great city. I also enjoy golf when I get a chance and am involved with the Irish Wild Geese Society. But it's a busy job being a Commissioner, contrary to some people's perceptions," he adds before wandering off, briefcase in hand, into the Ballsbridge sunshine.

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