‘We bring our prejudices with us – and we have no monopoly on gobshites.”
That rather pithy quote was delivered by a veteran Eurocrat over late-night drinks in Brussels to this author more than two decades ago.
We were discussing the demerits – and further demerits – of some Irish people who down the years got “wicked big jobs out here in Europe”.
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So, we were talking jealousy, national inferiority complex, and even occasionally trying to be fair about where Ireland fits in the much larger EU jigsaw.
Check your prejudices and see: either we Irish punch above our EU weight – which we often do. Or, we have an exaggerated notion of ourselves – also true at times.
That conversation came to mind as Ireland’s EU Commissioner Phil Hogan moves from “one wicked big EU job” to an even “bigger one”.
And conversations like that one, repeated many times over my 10 years working in Brussels, and a further 20 years following EU affairs, gives this writer the confidence to say three simple things.
1. Phil Hogan’s designation as EU Trade Commissioner is the product of five years’ dedicated and successful work in the Brussels executive.
2. It is further evidence that the EU will keep faith with Ireland into the future.
3. It has the potential to benefit Ireland and the EU into the future.
All of that looks like big talk and we shall see how things pan out. But let’s spool back a little into the recent past and see what we already know.
Before he was named as Ireland’s EU Commissioner in September 2014, Phil Hogan was popularly seen as the unpopular man who gave us the property tax and water meters.
The botched water charge and its spin-off controversies for a time seemed limitless, as critics rejected his ‘I-don’t-micromanage’ explanation for Irish Water’s €85m spend on consultants.
But his Fine Gael party influence remained considerable.
Then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny owed him hugely, not least for support in fending off the June 2010 leadership heave.
For many party supporters he was the Fianna Fáil iron in the Fine Gael soul.
Some argued it was a major reason why in 2011 they had won their first general election in 30 years.
But some party critics saw him as “far too culturally Fianna Fáil”.
Mr Kenny’s nominating him to Brussels was both political payback and an effort to turn a political page.
The Kilkenny man simply moved to Brussels with an ambition to make his mark – which he very clearly did as Agriculture Commissioner.
The job, previously held by another tough Irishman, Ray MacSharry, remains a huge post.
It is not just the huge budget – it is perhaps more importantly about the reality that most governments and interest groups still come calling for favours.
For an Irish politician, that is known territory.
The EU-wide read on Hogan was that he operated very well on most every level over the past five years.
His nomination yesterday as the next EU trade commissioner by his new boss, Ursula von der Leyen of Germany, surely marks the high point of a very remarkable career.
Global trade is the EU’s biggest role.
By now ‘Big Phil’, the political bruiser, has shown he has a more refined set of political skills and become a significant player in Brussels and on the world stage.
There were some doubts about how he would fare in the new regime.
He had developed a very strong relationship with outgoing Commission boss Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, who used to call him “Farmer Phil”. Both were gutsy political operators who had to operate in small local communities and understood grassroots politics.
But Hogan’s skilful navigation of the Brussels scene showed that the “bruiser caricature” was simply a crude stereotype.
He proved that political skills, deftly applied, are what really count in the EU’s Brussels executive, and these skills are difficult for other commissioners who come from an administrative or academic background.
Phil Hogan kept in tune with the EU governments, and especially the leaders meeting at regular summits.
He also worked hard on keeping up relations with the European Parliament which has ever-increasing power and influence.
Political instincts and his good reading of the mood in Brussels allowed Hogan to become an outspoken critic of Brexiteers.
He repeatedly warned them about the consequences of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
Just weeks ago he said a no-deal Brexit would create a “foul atmosphere” between the EU and the UK and would have “serious consequences” for negotiating any future trade agreement. He probably knew that his new job would mean he will be overseeing talks on any future EU-UK relationship.
Mr Hogan was also scathingly critical of the new UK prime minister, warning him he risked being dubbed “Mr No-Deal”.
He deftly paraphrased the famous tribute by Winston Churchill to the RAF, in essence warning that so many UK citizens would suffer so much harm from so few Tory Brexiteers.
Achieving the post of EU Trade Commissioner owes something to the Irish lobbying effort from Government and the diplomatic corps.
It is also a clear recognition of the skills and calibre of Commissioner Hogan.
He is in reality the only Irish Commissioner to rate a second consecutive term in the prestigious posting.
It is true that Fianna Fáil’s Commissioner Pádraig Flynn technically got two terms, but the first one was an interim posting to allow EU reforms and timeframes kick in.
Though Mr Flynn performed well in the job, the subsequent Dublin tribunal revelations took very much from his reputation.
In the future it is likely that Phil Hogan will be compared with his predecessor in agriculture, Mr MacSharry, who took brave reform steps, or Ireland’s first ever Commissioner, Patrick Hillery, who laid the groundwork for gender equality laws.
It is even more likely that he will be compared with the late Peter Sutherland, also a Fine Gael nominee, who held the prestigious competition portfolio from 1985 to 1989.
‘Suds’, a former Attorney General and international businessman, is credited with opening up air travel to full competition.
Mr Sutherland later went to head the World Trade Organisation and delivered a landmark global commerce deal in 1995.
It is a reminder that many Irish people certainly punched above our national weight in Brussels and it is also a suggestion of what might lay ahead for “Bruiser” Phil Hogan.
But let’s just take one thing at a time.
For now it is sufficient to realise that Hogan has set high standards in Brussels and that this has been recognised by his nomination to a bigger job.
This also brings us to where we came in. It tells us that other EU states have no monopoly on talent – and that it may be time to abandon our many prejudices founded in outdated national inferiority complexes.
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