'Big Phil' facing into his toughest cattle herding challenge yet

'Big Phil' facing into his toughest cattle herding challenge yet

When Phil Hogan moved back from Cork after his graduation from UCC to run the family farm in south Kilkenny, he could hardly have imagined that one day, he would emerge as one of the small group of key players around the President of the European Commission and in pole position to help determine the future relationship between Britain and the rest of the EU.

As Trade Commissioner, the former Government Minister – who took more than his share of the flak during his period in ministerial office – will find himself right in the thick of it as efforts are put in place to craft a new relationship, assuming Brexit goes ahead, and as the existing world trade order comes under increased pressure from the 'America First' administration in Washington DC.

Mr Hogan will not be the first Irish politician to find redemption and to have carved out an international reputation in Brussels.

Two of his Fianna Fáil predecessors, Ray MacSharry and Pádraig Flynn, discovered new political lives after they became office holders in the Berlaymont building while Fine Gael’s Peter Sutherland left a huge legacy in the competition field as a right hand man to the reforming Commission President Jacques Delors from 1985.

The psychodrama of the UK departure process since June 2016 should not blind us from the fact that the real fun and games will only start when the UK begins to negotiate its longer term future relationship with the rest of the EU.

To date, the burden of putting in place an 'exit agreement' has been borne by Michel Barnier along with his formidable official, Sabine Weyand.

Many regard Ms Weyand as the co-EU lead negotiator alongside Mr Barnier. Significantly, Ms Weyand has moved over to head the EU Trade Directorate where she will work closely with Mr Hogan.

At 59, 'Big Phil' is at the peak of his career, a political career that began at the age of 22 when he was elected to Kilkenny County Council.

He founded an insurance and real estate business to help boost his income from farming. But his political career also prospered as he became the Council’s youngest ever chairman and was elected to the Seanad in 1987 – with the help of votes from Workers Party councillors.

At the time, the sitting Fine Gael TD Kieran Crotty was involved in an industrial dispute at the family bakery and the group of leftist councillors concluded that a promotion for Mr Hogan could stymy Deputy Crotty.

'Big Phil' got the bounce of the ball, which he took over the line, being elected to Dáil Éireann in 1989.

He soon made himself indispensable to the party leader John Bruton, helping him to fight off a challenge to the leadership.

In 1994, the Reynolds Govermnent fell unexpectedly and Mr Bruton found himself in office as Taoiseach. Mr Hogan was appointed as a 'senior junior' – Minister of State at the Department of Finance.

A mix-up over a fax by an assistant involving a leak of budget details led to Mr Hogan falling on his sword. He retreated to become party chairman.

'Big Phil' facing into his toughest cattle herding challenge yet

His big domestic break came in 2011 when he was appointed as Minister of the Environment, Community and Local Government. He had to gulp from a series of poisoned chalices.

The deal with the Troika provided for the introduction of water charges and a property tax. Mr Hogan handed the introduction of the latter pretty well. The enforcement of water charges, on the other hand, was a different story altogether.

His straight talking schtick was not what was needed at a time when the patience of the public with austerity programmes was cracking.

The opposition had a field day. Mr Hogan’s appointment as Agriculture and Rural Affairs Commissioner was viewed as a political extraction and rescue.

He arrived in Brussels in a damaged political state, arguably having taken a bullet for the Commission already. Most observers accept that he has revived his career, and then some.

Since 2014, he has developed a reputation as "a forceful charmer and deal maker" in the words of one correspondent.

Mr Hogan has had to face serious challenges. The Brexit vote has increased pressures on the EU Budget. He has had to fight a rear guard action to defend the CAP.

The Russian occupation of Crimea and subsequent occupation of the Crimea has resulted in a trade embargo which has hit EU food exports hard. Moves to expand EU external trade - through deals with Canada and recently, the Mercosur group of South American states - have irked farmers, particularly beef farmers in Ireland.

For Mr Hogan, the challenge has been to press ahead with reforms in the way the CAP is implemented.

Early on, he promised regulatory simplification with fewer checks on the farm. He has sought to address the ongoing power imbalance in the food chain in favour of retailers, establishing a task force to examine reforms.

Has this been enough? Probably not. The current impasse between Irish beef producers and meat factories stands as testament to farmer desperation and a sundering of relations. Irish farming remains in a fragile state.

The Commission is largely not to blame for this state of affairs, but a more ruthless, concerted approach to reform between Mr Hogan and his Competition Commissioner, Margrethe Vestager would have been desirable.

But the Commissioner has also brought a refreshing realism to his portfolio, arguing that "the CAP has to evolve to reflect the changing world in which we live."

One regret is that he will depart the scene before the next CAP regime is put in place from 2020.

'Big Phil' facing into his toughest cattle herding challenge yet

As he departs, Mr Hogan has been stressing the importance of strengthening action in the agri-food area on climate change and the environment, improving soil and water quality and boosting biodiversity.

Such views chime with the green agenda of the Commission President, Urusla von der Leyen and a much enlarged group of Green MEPs.

Mr Hogan's big idea has been the development of an EU food and farming food chain that boosts rural economies.

He has also been to the forefront in supporting external trade in food, with opportunities opening up in East Asia, in particular.

In his new role as Trade Commissioner, Mr Hogan has come out swinging - targeting both London and Washington administrations.

Tensions between the capitals are growing as the US President targets the EU with tariffs and seeks to boost ties with London.

Mr Hogan will, at least, be able to rely on countervailing forces in the House of Representatives.

'Big Phil' facing into his toughest cattle herding challenge yet

There is much work to be done, with Mr Hogan’s predecessor Cecilia Malmstrom warning, last July, that US-EU trade talks are stalemated.

The new Commissioner has already been across much of the trade brief in his role as Agriculture Commissioner.

His fundamental challenge, however, is likely to be in the handling of complex negotiations with the UK on a post-Brexit relationship.

Mr Hogan will need all his dealmaking and political arm twisting skills in the months and years ahead. He will have to convince London of the need for realism while bringing the national Government and European Parliament onside in the event of a set of proposals being agreed.

A particular stumbling point – separate from the contest over the backstop – now exists in the form of a threat of a UK abandonment of the commitment from Theresa May’s government to "maintain a level playing field" in the environmental and social field.

Mr Hogan is straight speaking, but as an experienced Irish politician, he will recognise the importance of ensuring that Britain does not emerge from the talks in an embittered state.

Growing up on a farm, he will have learned all the tricks when it comes to herding cattle. These skills will surely come in handy in the months ahead.

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