The Enforcer's Brexit batting shouldn't be forgotten amid unease
Dotted around the walls of Phil Hogan's office in the imposing Berlaymont, the European Commission HQ, are reminders of home. Amongst the framed printouts of flattering editorials and profiles is a picture of the great Kilkenny hurler Frank Cummins going up for the sliotar during the 1982 All-Ireland final, in which the Cats were victorious.
It shows that home is never far from the mind of the Tullaroan man even as the role of EU Agriculture Commissioner requires him to adopt a 28-member state of mind.
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But old colleagues in Fine Gael are now wondering whether Hogan forgot about Ireland when it came to the EU-Mercosur trade deal. "He is around long enough now and he should have known to sidetrack this till after the election," says one frustrated Fine Gael Cabinet minister.
But the truth is that the commissioner would never have been able to delay a vast EU trade deal for narrow political interests at home. He also didn't forget about Ireland. He was straight out on RTÉ last week defending the trade deal, while insisting there are benefits for the Irish economy as a whole as well as safeguards to protect beef farmers worried about the arrival of cheaper South American beef onto our shores.
Mr Hogan's strong defence of Mercosur, including his dismissal of "wildly inaccurate numbers" from farming organisations in these pages yesterday, has been sparked by a growing frustration over what one source in his camp described as "scaremongering" from the IFA. There has also been unhappiness with what the source said was "bluster" from Michael Creed after the Agriculture Minister vowed to "frustrate, mitigate, to dismantle" the elements of the deal that will be harmful to the beef sector.
Fine Gael's response to the deal has been a mess. Mr Creed's remarks are, for example, wildly at odds with the Taoiseach's suggestion last Sunday that Ireland might ultimately support Mercosur if it's good for the economy as a whole.
No wonder it has some Fine Gael ministers, TDs and senators jittery about giving Mr Hogan a second term, but that isn't the commissioner's fault.
His critics should keep in mind that any objective assessment of Mr Hogan's five years at the commission would show he has struck a balance between being a commissioner for all 28 member states and looking after Ireland's interests pretty well. Aside from the €50m in emergency Brexit funding he secured for the beef farmers (the same ones giving out now) just a few weeks ago, he has driven reforms to make agriculture more environmentally sustainable and, most importantly, repeatedly gone to bat for Ireland on Brexit.
He has frequently lashed out at Brexiteers and their latest schemes to solve the Border conundrum, having been the only commissioner allowed to canvass during the referendum in 2016. Last September Mr Hogan said: "The UK is trapped in a recurring cycle of silly behaviour."
He was much-admired by the outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker because he is political. These interventions were no accident, they were done with the tacit approval of the European Commission. It is almost as if Mr Hogan has become the commission's Brexit enforcer - not unlike his role in Fine Gael when Enda Kenny was leader.
While there are ministers who are sceptical about giving him another five-year term, he has supporters in Cabinet. "A sharp antenna and is always on the ball for Irish farmers," one senior Fine Gael minister insisted. Another minister said reappointing Mr Hogan was "a good plan". They noted Mr Hogan could be in line for a commission vice-presidency. That and/or a role as trade or internal market commissioner would be a coup for Ireland. Experience matters which is why, despite the internal disquiet, Mr Hogan is still more than likely set for another five years in Brussels.