Meeting up with Phil Hogan in Dublin in recent days, there was clearly an awareness of the importance and challenges his new portfolio of EU Trade Commissioner carried, not least because of the tense time in Brexit negotiations, but also because of the instability and tension in global trade.
He was under no illusions that trust and confidence in the EU, in the banking system, in relations with the US were all still at a low ebb. But he did think that the recent visit of Boris Johnson to Dublin and - conversely - the actions of the rebel alliance in London to block a no-deal Brexit give cause for optimism.
However, he was unequivocal in that "whatever happens, pragmatic solutions will be found to support Ireland and in particular the agri-food economy on the island of Ireland."
And in a typical aside and showing why he was chosen as Trade Commissioner he stated "with a small bit of give and take, we can still do a huge amount to mitigate the worst risks of Brexit."
One of his over-riding concerns was the disruption that the long drawn out Brexit process was having on the plethora of other important items on the EU agenda. Top of his agenda was the EU Budget, which has yet to be approved by EU member states for the period 2021 to 2027.
Acknowledging that the Brexit situation was muddying the water and that a black hole would be left in the Budget if and when the UK leaves, he said "all member states, including Ireland, will have to contribute to make up for the lost contribution from the UK."
He went on to say that reaching a budget agreement was also a crucial step in finalising the next cycle of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which was very significant to Ireland’s rural community. He did, however, warn that the agri-food sector needed to do more in climate change and environment protection if it wished to maintain political justification for a strong CAP budget in the future.
His comment that if every farmer put two hectares into forestry, the Irish agri emissions problem could be overcome, shows that a strong solutions-based approach can be expected from the new man leading the EU trade negotiations.
On wider international matters in Asia, America and the Middle East, where his new Trade Commission activities would be involved, he was in no doubt as to the difficulties that lay ahead for a man from Kilkenny.
"Unfortunately, the global trading order - as we know it - is being challenged, particularly by the trade tensions between China and the US. The EU’s priority is to develop a predictable, transparent and rules-based multilateral trading system, while at the same time, pursuing an ambitious agenda for negotiations of bi-lateral or regional trade agreements."
He did concede that the World Trade Organisation did need to have its rules and systems cleaned up to deal with the pressures from blocks such as the US and China. Clear evidence that the role of the WTO has diminished, over the past five years, is the fact that the EU has concluded 12 regional free trade agreements in the period.
Conscious of the bad publicity in Ireland for one of the recent regional trade agreements, the EU deal with South America –the Mercosur Free Trade Agreement –which as Agriculture Commissioner he backed, much to the annoyance of the Irish Farmers Association, he explained that €5bn of reductions in tariffs conceded on South American imports into Europe was a good trade off to ensure climate action and more sustainable farming practices in that part of the world.
"We should continue to focus on being big on the big issues; for example continuing to build the single market and the digital single market, to continue large scale investment, to accelerate the roll out of urban and rural broadband, to continue leading globally on climate change and multilateral trade and to develop more equitable and manageable migration and security structure," he said.
- John Whelan is managing partner of international trade consultancy The Linkage-Partnership