Wednesday 16 October 2019

John Downing: 'Battle now begins to get Hogan a job that packs a punch'

Nominated: Phil Hogan (left) with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Laura Hutton
Nominated: Phil Hogan (left) with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Laura Hutton
John Downing

John Downing

'We need our best people in Europe. The Government will now work closely with our colleagues in the EU to support him in securing the best possible portfolio in the new commission."

With those words Leo Varadkar confirmed Phil Hogan was nominated back to Brussels until late 2025. And the Taoiseach also opened the battle to get Ireland's nominee a job with at least as much EU political clout as the one he currently holds as Agriculture and Rural Affairs Commissioner.

There are nominally 27 places in the policy-guiding EU executive. But at the kindest estimate, only a dozen of these jobs actually pack a punch.

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There is also a clue in the job title 'European Commissioner'. It tells us the primary responsibility is to further the work of the EU as a whole.

But realpolitik also applies here. It has long been accepted at Commission HQ that each commissioner has a strong role in reflecting his or her home country's concerns.

When national governments are trying to batter their way through the EU maze, their commissioner's office is an early point of contact.

Now as Brexit gets more and more serious for Ireland, Phil Hogan needs a job with a real budget and/or direct powers to ensure his voice will be heard. A scan of international media shows the Kilkenny man is well rated in Brussels and across the EU system.

Responsibility for agriculture and rural development was in many ways an ideal job for a seasoned operator with honed political wheeler-dealing instincts. The job gives a deal of discretion over the spending of 38pc of the EU's yearly €140bn budget. People across the system often need a political favour in this position - and such favours can regularly later be called in.

The EU's Common Agriculture Policy dates from 1962 and was for long the bloc's only fully developed policy providing the mortar which kept it together. It seems less likely he will retain the agriculture job for another term, though that cannot be ruled out. But Phil Hogan has the credentials to command another key job. The position of trade commissioner has been suggested. Always an important post, trade will be even more vital to Ireland in a post-Brexit world. In a curious way, false doubts raised about his re-appointment by the Mercosur-EU trade deal controversy over the last 10 days, may now play to his advantage.

Being unfairly characterised as "not doing the Irish job" by farmer unions, and even some of his own former political colleagues, is some evidence he can and generally has seen the "big EU picture".

There is no doubt domestic factors played in favour of Phil Hogan's renomination for a second consecutive term. Of Ireland's 11 EU commissioners, only one other, Pádraig Flynn, got such an honour, and even then one of Flynn's terms was a shorter interim one.

Relations between Hogan and the Taoiseach remain good and Hogan played an influential role in Varadkar's leadership quest in 2017. All of the nominees in the history of this prestige post have been primarily, if not solely, made by the Taoiseach of the day.

Incoming Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, has the key say in job allocations. For now her key focus is on canvassing MEPs' support for a ratification vote next week. Phil Hogan will face a European Parliament inquisition this autumn as MEPs vote on the entire commission.

Irish Independent

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