Irish bruiser, on the ropes at home, comes out swinging in Brussels
Theres no going back for Phil Hogan.
With his reputation at home still in tatters for introducing an unpopular water charge at the height of the financial crisis, the Irishman has launched a stealth campaign to stay in Brussels after next years European election.
The giant from County Kilkenny, who stands 1.95 meters tall, has set his eyes on becoming the next trade commissioner, according to five senior EU officials and diplomats. Hogan, meanwhile, told POLITICO hed like to stay on as European agriculture czar.
For his critics, this all smacks of desperation: They say Hogan has had nowhere else to turn since being booed in the streets of his own constituency over the water charges.
“He got the gig [as agriculture commissioner] because he was a problem to Fine Gael back home,” said Luke Ming Flanagan, an Irish MEP and opponent of Hogan, referring to the ruling party of which Hogan is a member. “He was seen as kind of out of touch and he wasnt really helping.”
“Phil Hogan is doing an excellent job” — Nick Miller, a spokesperson for the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar
Hogans supporters, on the other hand, say his reputation as a forceful charmer and dealmaker make him a strong contender — potentially to take over from Cecilia Malmström as EU trade chief.
Interviewed in his office on the eighth floor of the European Commission building in Brussels, Hogan at first demurred about throwing his hat in the ring to succeed the Swede.
“I havent made my mind up on that, and I wont make my mind up in relation to that matter until maybe March or April next year in consultation with whoever the prime minister of Ireland is,” said the commissioner, sporting a pair of sapphire-blue spectacles.
“Id like to continue the work that Im doing now on agriculture and rural development and finish the job in terms of the reforms,” he said. “Im very happy with the job Im doing. I find it very rewarding. I have an excellent team and I dont see any reason why I would want to change.”
“Im very happy with the job Im doing. I find it very rewarding. I have an excellent team and I dont see any reason why I would want to change,” said Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan | Maurizio DeglInnocenti/EPA
Its far from clear whether he has a serious chance of swapping agriculture for the trade job, which has a higher profile on the world stage.
To be sure, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker already calls on Hogan to go beyond his farming brief and deliver the kind of blunt messaging on Brexit that wouldnt be appropriate coming from chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier. In September, Hogan called hard-line Brexiteers Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage the “Three Stooges” who didnt grasp the complexities of the Irish border question.
A few months earlier, speaking in Dublin, he said the U.K. government “does not have a replacement for the Union as a way to improve the life quality of its citizens, its businesses and its standing in the world.”
Hogan said his outspokenness on Brexit is a personal matter.
“Of course, I grew up in the political atmosphere of 30 years of trouble on the island of Ireland where 3,000 people were killed and bombs went off, not just in Dublin and Monaghan and Northern Ireland but also in London and Manchester, where I have relatives,” he told POLITICO. “I always have a temptation in those circumstances to be vocal, and hopefully I dont upset too many people and my British friends. But I nevertheless like to tell them what I believe to be the whole truth and the realities from time to time.”
Hogan has also made his mark on EU trade policy. Intricately involved in talks with the South American Mercosur trade bloc, where he has fought to keep down the beef quota from Latin America, he has also struck up a rapport with Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative, just as discussions in the EU focus on how to salvage whats left of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
“Hes been very effective in terms of wheeling and dealing and nodding and winking” — Matt Carthy, an MEP from opposition party Sinn Féin
Hogan was also applauded for his negotiating skills in closing the EUs biggest ever trade deal, with Japan in 2017.
Moreover, having a commissioner from the country with arguably the most to lose from Brexit in charge of the EUs trade talks with Britain as it leaves the bloc would also send a strong message.
“He and I are from different political families but I would love to see him as trade commissioner,” said Dick Roche, a former environment minister from the opposition Fianna Fáil. “We are living in a fragile world where the old system and values have gone out of the window. I could see him sitting down with some temperamental, high-profile negotiators from the other side of the Atlantic and getting the job done.”
Nod and a wink
On the surface, at least, Dublin does not appear opposed to the idea of Hogan staying on as Irelands man in the Berlaymont. “Phil Hogan is doing an excellent job as European commissioner,” said Nick Miller, a spokesperson for the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar.
However, to many of his compatriots, Hogan remains a hated symbol of austerity politics. As environment minister, he implemented the controversial water charges policy that was a provision of the 2010 bailout. It inspired some of the largest protests Ireland had ever witnessed, hardly helped by his quip, “You cant make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
“To me, he hasnt been an effective commissioner. Hes been very effective in terms of wheeling and dealing and nodding and winking,” said Matt Carthy, an MEP from opposition party Sinn Féin. “Hes good at putting himself into influential positions and good at recognizing who the power brokers are.”
In 2011, Hogans standing went from bad to worse when he hit the headlines for making a lewd comment on a golf course to Anne OConnell, a former prime ministerial aide. When she challenged him on a new property tax and said she hoped “he would not screw property owners,” Hogan retorted: “I have no problem screwing you. Hasnt Mairtin [her husband] been screwing you for years?” He later apologized.
Jean-Claude Juncker, second from right, with Simon Coveney, left, John Horan and Hogan, right, during a June visit to Croke Park in Dublin | Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
However, its not quite that easy to pigeon-hole Hogan, despite his often rambunctious style. Renowned for his hearty Irish diet of meat and potatoes, he has been known to greet reporters with an affectionate “this little f**ker!” At the same time, he won widespread support for bringing in legislation that forced major Irish political parties to ensure that at least 30 percent of their candidates are women.
But controversy always lurks around the corner. In 2012, he was on the front pages for writing to constituents to assure them that a family of Travellers — a traditionally itinerant ethnic group — would not be moving into the neighborhood. Fianna Fáil said his actions were an abuse of power but Hogan successfully sued two Irish media outlets that called him a racist. Irish MEP Nessa Childers would later cite the incident as a reason for opposing his nomination as agriculture commissioner, saying there is a need to safeguard EU equality rules.
Less than one year on, in December 2012, Hogan was snapped in Doha with his arm wrapped around a female press aide, who quit in the ensuing scandal. In 2014, there was public outrage when it emerged that the government had spent more than €50 million on consultants to implement the hated water policy. It was time for the Irish government to find him a safe space, in Brussels.
Bit of a bruiser
An early riser who is obsessed with punctuality, Hogan entered national politics aged 22 as a councillor in County Kilkenny and quickly worked his way up to become minister of state at the Department of Finance in 1994. He was a key figure in rebuilding Fine Gael after a disastrous 2002 election and was put in charge of the 2011 campaign — the most successful in the partys history.
“Hes a big figure in Fine Gael, and its no secret to say he was also known as a bit of a bruiser in terms of pushing through policy options, pushing through the reorganization of the party, and attacking county councillors who werent shaping up,” said a senior Commission official who is one of Hogans closest confidants in Brussels, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
To illustrate Hogans status in Fine Gael, the official recalled the commissioners encounter with Varadkar in Brussels in 2017, shortly before the then social protection minister announced his candidature to take over as prime minister from Enda Kenny, a longtime ally of Hogans.
Hogan during a June visit to Croke Park in Dublin
“He put him through his paces to make sure the answers that Leo gave would stack up, and that this wasnt just something where you could say Ill just wake up one morning and want to be Taoiseach [prime minister],” said another close aide to Hogan.
The Irishman also knows how to network. Meeting Paul Ryan on a U.S. trip, he had found out that the speaker of the House has roots in Kilkenny, and presented him with a woolen throw from a little factory called Cushendale in the town of Graiguenamanagh, the ancestral home of Ryans great-great grandparents.
While his charm may be lost on many people back home, in Brussels Hogan is often described as a savvy politician close to Juncker and Martin Selmayr, the Commissions secretary-general.
In 2017, as Brussels began negotiating the next EU budget, Juncker and his European Commissioner for Budget Günther Oettinger were seriously considering chopping the €59 billion-a-year pot for the Common Agricultural Policy by 30 percent. Hogan was incensed, according to three Commission officials.
“He worked prime ministers, he worked MEPs, the EPP [conservative European Peoples Party] family network and other commissioners into a kind of hyped sense of awareness” around the impact this would have on farmers, according to one official close to Hogan. In tête-à-têtes with Oettinger, he eventually managed to convince the German commissioner to cut the CAP by just 5 percent between 2021 and 2027.
But Hogan doesnt always get his way in Brussels, either.
Shortly after he began as commissioner, milk prices collapsed when the EU dropped its milk quotas in March 2015. Thousands of producers went out of business amid a glut, and Hogans team was blasted by farmers for dragging its feet when designing EU support measures.
“We did feel that in the circumstances, where farmer milk prices collapsed below the costs of production for 18 months, the response of the Commission was slow and it seemed to take an inordinately long time for the Commission to join the dots,” said Pat McCormack, head of the 16,000-strong Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association.
His handling of the milk crisis was also the cause of several tense encounters with the equally towering Frenchman Stéphane Le Foll, when he was his countrys agriculture minister, at Council meetings in Brussels, several officials said.
Hogans portrait joins those of François Hollande, Mark Rutte, Angela Merkel, Jean-Claude Juncker, David Cameron Helle Thorning-Schmidt amid burning bales of straw during a protest by dairy farmers in 2014 | Francois Lenoir/Reuters
“I think its safe enough to characterize the relationship as a sometimes difficult relationship between Le Foll and Hogan. These are two very big beasts, big physically and big in terms of character, big in terms of knowing themselves and big in terms of conviction in their own ideas,” said a Commission official privy to their encounters.
The tensions between Hogan and Le Foll peaked in mid-2016 as a
Russian embargo on European food, coupled with the milk glut stemming from the quotas, wreaked havoc with farmers and the Frenchman
complained about Hogans delay in introducing emergency funds in
return for farmers reducing their output.
Two officials present in the room at the monthly Agriculture Council on July 18 said a visibly aggravated Le Foll could be heard breathing heavily as Hogan finally announced a €500 million dairy bailout package.
Keeper of the flame
Hung on a wall in Hogans office is a large sign that reads: “Whatever you want to do, do it! There are only so many tomorrows.”
On an adjacent wall hangs a framed picture of Kilkenny midfielder Frank Cummins in action during the
1982 All Ireland Hurling final against Cork (hurling being a sort of aerial hockey).
In some ways, the two portraits sum Hogan up — a man thats not afraid to bash a few heads together if it means coming out on top.
“I like to put myself in the mindset of the person I am talking to when Im negotiating a policy objective and there will always be give and take,” Hogan said. “Some people mix up charm and enforcement. It could be a mixture of both,” he added.
Hogan admitted he never likes to take “no” for an answer. That view was demonstrated all too well in December 2016 when — against the advice of his Cabinet — he left his hospital bed to deliver a speech on agriculture in Brussels, visibly in pain from a bout of kidney stones.
There are of course some things simply out of his control when it comes to hanging on in Brussels. In Ireland, Fine Gael rules as a fragile minority government and its longevity in office is uncertain. Theres a possibility the country could hold new elections before the next Commission takes office in 2019, and Hogans role as a party elder is being chipped away by a new generation of suave, progressive Dubliners led by Varadkar.
Neither is it certain how well parties from the EPP — of which Fine Gael is a member — will do in the 2019 European election. Still, as a senior executive at one of Irelands largest dairy associations put it: “Hes the only one keeping the flame alight for those who are right of center and catholic with a small c.”