Wednesday 19 June 2019

Headache for Cowen over Coughlan EU post

Fionnan Sheahan Political Editor

THE EU has posed a major headache for Taoiseach Brian Cowen by lobbying for Tanaiste Mary Coughlan as Agriculture Commissioner.

The Irish Independent has learned she was proposed to government officials as the prime candidate for the plum job at a crucial juncture in the reform of farm subsidies.

Mr Cowen is also under pressure from the head of the European Commission to put forward a female candidate for the post.

However, if the Taoiseach were to accede to the requests he would further risk his already slim majority at a time when he is trying to push through a tough Budget.

And it would also be perceived that he was yielding to criticism of the Tanaiste's poor showing as Enterprise Minister.

Ms Coughlan is held in high regard in Europe from her time as Agriculture Minister, in stark contrast to her much-maligned performance in her current role at home.

The French government is backing an Irish appointment for the job in the new commission, which will take up office towards the end of the year.

On the basis Mr Cowen is unlikely to appoint a government minister, the firm favourite for the commissioner position remains former Fianna Fail minister Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, who is currently a member of the European Court of Auditors.

Ms Geoghegan-Quinn's claim to the job would not be as strong as Ms Coughlan's, but she still ticks a lot of boxes so can't be ruled out.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has demanded gender balance in selections from countries and Ireland has never had a female commissioner.

Ms Coughlan was mooted in European circles as a possible candidate for the job.

Government officials were told there would be a lot of support for Ms Coughlan if she was put forward.

"It was being mooted from Brussels a few weeks ago.

"She was acceptable because she was an effective agriculture minister. In back channels talk, her name was mentioned," a government source said.

But Mr Cowen is in a difficult position as he cannot afford to send a coalition TD and she is also a senior member of his Cabinet.

Mr Cowen is not expected to announce his nomination this week, even though he is attending an EU summit in Brussels tomorrow.

The next Agriculture Commissioner will be a significant figure as the EU farm payments and subsidies scheme, the Common Agricultural Policy or CAP, will be overhauled during their term in office.

Coup

Although agriculture is a high-spending portfolio, there are some in government circles who would like to see the Irish commissioner getting a post in technology or energy.

Nonetheless, agriculture would be seen as something of a coup for the Taoiseach after the damage done to the country's reputation by the first 'No' vote to the Lisbon Treaty.

Government sources say the French were pushing the Irish case for the job.

Ireland has often aligned itself with France on EU agricultural issues.

Romania is also pitching for the post after putting forward former agriculture minister Dacian Ciolos as its EU commissioner.

The established EU countries don't want any of the new members from Eastern Europe getting the post.

But an Irish Agriculture Commissioner might also be a double-edged sword as there would be huge expectations from the farming community.

The latest delay by the Czech Republic in ratifying the Lisbon Treaty buys Mr Cowen some more time to decide on his commissioner.

The Czech Republic is now the only country out of 27 EU members to not have ratified the treaty.

Irish Independent

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