Hugh O’Connell: 'Hogan must be wondering if his future is now on the butcher's block'
In the coming weeks Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will have to decide whether to reappoint Phil Hogan for a second term as Ireland's European commissioner. But one of Mr Hogan's last acts for the outgoing commission may now have some bearing on that decision.
Mr Hogan has faced a barrage of criticism in recent days over his role in negotiating the free trade deal between the European Union and the so-called Mercosur countries of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. The deal paves the way for an increase in imports of cheaper beef from South America with an obvious impact on Ireland's beef sector, which is already feeling the strain from Brexit uncertainty. A Government source said Mr Hogan was "central" to a deal that even the Taoiseach has acknowledged is bad for the beef sector in Ireland.
It is little surprise then that farming organisations in Ireland are livid. Their frustration is not just with cheap beef imports but also with the knowledge that while they must adhere to strict EU environmental standards, there is a much higher carbon footprint from the production of Brazilian beef.
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"A lot of farmers are saying 'why are we bothering with this environmental standards when they're at this craic'?" said one IFA source last night.
The Government has already been on the back foot with farmers of late owing to falling beef prices as a result of the Brexit uncertainty. While a €100m EU/Irish aid package was welcomed by the IFA, it estimates that Mercosur could ultimately cost the beef sector at least five times that amount.
Mr Hogan, the combative commissioner, came out swinging at the weekend, insisting he had spent months trying to mitigate the damage, but that some ground on beef imports had to be conceded to ensure savings and benefits elsewhere. It is a deal that, it must be said, will have benefits for Ireland in a range of other sectors including machinery, pharmaceuticals and medical instruments.
Irish officials have been in constant contact with Mr Hogan on this issue in recent months, but ultimately his decisions cannot boil down to what suits the Irish farmer when there are, for now, 27 other EU states' interests to consider.
Mr Varadkar, who encountered the wrath of farmers over his now-infamous comments about reducing his meat consumption, was at pains to point out last night that this deal is years from becoming a reality.
But the political backlash from Fianna Fáil and others, including some in his own party, may colour his decision as to who is Ireland's next EU commissioner. In Brussels, he insisted that an economic assessment would determine Irish support for the deal, but he was notably reserved on Mr Hogan's future.
"I'll make a decision on that when the new EU Commission president is in place," he said. Such a stock answer is likely to cause Mr Hogan some concern in the days ahead.