How crucial is Phil Hogan in fighting the Irish corner during Brexit battles in Brussels? That question is at the forefront of a bitter debate in Ireland over whether the EU trade commissioner should quit for breaching coronavirus rules.
Anger over Hogan’s travels across Ireland — and in particular his attendance at a high-profile golfing dinner last week — has united Irish politicians in condemnation, but several argue that he is simply too effective a negotiator to force out of his job, when the country’s fate is so intimately bound to the terms of a future trade deal with the U.K.
“Do we cut our nose off to spite our face?” Verona Murphy, an independent Irish lawmaker, asked on a morning radio show on the broadcaster RTÉ on Wednesday. “We’re about to face into the most critical time of Brexit trade talks in the history of this state. If we lose the trade portfolio, it will be the equivalent of commercial suicide.”
Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin has similarly stuck by Hogan’s credentials as a commissioner, while condemning his evasive answers on breaking Ireland’s pandemic regulations.
When it comes to the specifics of Hogan’s interventions on Brexit, however, the picture in Brussels is ambiguous. Negotiating a Brexit deal is the frontline role of the Frenchman Michel Barnier. Hogan has no formal role, and opinion is divided about how great a clout the Irishman really wields behind the scenes.
“Hogan has 0.0 percent impact on the Brexit talks,” said one EU official closely involved in the talks with the U.K. “The Irish government is just using that argument to keep him in Brussels because they know they won’t get the trade portfolio anymore if they sent someone else.”
Mary Lou McDonald, party leader of the Sinn Féin opposition, took a similar line and argued: “A trade commissioner isn’t key to the Brexit talks … Michel Barnier and his team have really carried the can.”
A spokesperson for Hogan disputed those assessments and said Hogan was an important middleman between Brussels and Dublin. The spokesperson insisted that Hogan “works very closely with Michel Barnier” and that they “meet on an almost weekly basis,” while adding that the commissioner is “in regular contact with the Irish government on various aspects of the negotiations.”
The EU official involved in the talks, however, argued that this did not amount to much. “We don’t hear anything about him or his cabinet weighing in,” the official said. “You don’t feel his shadow in these negotiations. Hogan doesn’t play this crucial role that some attribute to him.”
Still, Dublin has not always been wedded to the idea that it must be Hogan flying the flag in Brussels. Earlier this year, Dublin was willing to support his candidacy to head the World Trade Organization, which would have put him in Geneva, and could well have resulted in Ireland losing the blue-ribbon trade portfolio.
The Three Stooges
In the previous Commission under President Jean-Claude Juncker, Hogan was given uniquely free rein as agriculture commissioner to talk about Brexit, while other commissioners were muzzled on Britain’s departure from the EU.
He became known for his blunt messaging, for example, by calling hard-line Brexiteers Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage the “Three Stooges” who didn’t grasp the complexities of the Irish border question.
It was this kind of blunt messaging on Brexit that wouldn’t be appropriate for Barnier, and his rhetoric played a key role, according to Barry Andrews, a member of the European Parliament from the Irish prime minister’s Fianna Fáil party.
“In the beginning of the whole process, there was a discussion in Irish public discourse whether to look at a bilateral relationship with the U.K. or whether we should just fold in with the other 26 member states. Phil Hogan was one of the first to argue strongly — and win the argument — that we’re strengthened in numbers and that trying to battle something out bilaterally would be incredibly short-sighted. While adhering to his duties as commissioner, he also plays this strategic role for Ireland.”
The EU official, however, brushed off Hogan’s influence in the previous phase of the Brexit negotiations.
“He barely intervened, but that wasn’t necessary either. The Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland would have been negotiated anyway. There was an intra-European consensus about the Irish interests — we didn’t need Phil Hogan for that.”
A Brexit diplomat from another European country said it was hard to distinguish Hogan’s string-pulling role behind the scenes. “The Commission never mentioned any demands from him or his cabinet, but they might have dealt with this internally.”
Meanwhile, Hogan’s influence after the transition period is yet to be determined.
Regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, talks with the United Kingdom will continue after the transition period ends on December 31. How Brussels organizes itself to continue working on the future relationship hasn’t been decided. But even in the case of a no-deal outcome, EU officials doubt that Hogan will take the lead.
The grim outlook of the Brexit negotiations seems to have helped Hogan in the decision-making process of whether leaving him out in the cold in Brussels is the smartest move for Ireland. While the Irish government cannot unilaterally remove the commissioner, a formal demand to the Commission president for his resignation would heap heavy pressure on von der Leyen.
Sinn Féin is pressing the Irish government to stop dithering over whether Hogan is too important to lose.
“We have a commissioner who seems pretty determined to face the government down,” said McDonald. “We can’t have more weeks of this chaos. We clearly see that we have a government that’s based more on rivalry than of any unity of purpose.”