“Big Phil” instinctively knows how to build useful relationships Photo: CHRISTOPH SOEDER/DPA/PA IMAGES

Will this man break Brexit Britain?

As the EU’s new trade boss, Irishman Phil Hogan has the power to determine the UK’s economic future. What will he do with it?
February 29, 2020

Phil Hogan, the newly-appointed EU trade commissioner, is perfectly happy to be underestimated. He now holds the ring on discussions that will settle Brexit Britain’s economic relationship with the EU. But back in the summer of 2010 he had a different role—as the secret weapon of opposition leader Enda Kenny.

Ireland was on the floor. It had suffered one of the world’s worst banking crises, necessitating a ruinously expensive bailout. The government was discredited and the country at the mercy of the European authorities. Yet, remarkably, the main party of opposition—Fine Gael—was turning on itself, with deputy leader Richard Bruton moving to oust Kenny.

For a while, the plot seemed to be going to plan. On a sunny day in June, Bruton attended a wedding in Killiney, an affluent suburb of Dublin, where he chatted poolside with Fine Gael’s rising stars. But the ambitious deputy hadn’t reckoned with Hogan, the loyal former chair of the parliamentary party, slogging away in the city centre, manning phones, alerting backbenchers that a coup was being attempted and masterminding its defeat. And, when nine senior members of the party headed to a meeting to demand that Kenny resign, Kenny fired them before they could—acting on Hogan’s advice.

Hogan had saved his man. He accessed parts of the party that Bruton hadn’t considered important, and seized control of the process straight out of the gate. Within a year, Kenny led Fine Gael to its greatest-ever victory—with Hogan as its director of elections.

Time and again over a 30-year career, Hogan has shown an ability to spot where the real political battle will be fought and turned his focus there before anyone else. He has a knack for identifying centres of power to capitalise on and instinctively understands how to build the trust required to navigate tricky terrain.

One former colleague describes the Hogan approach as “unsentimental”; another says it makes him “one of the most Machiavellian politicians we’ve ever produced.” He is not a conventional political ego and has little interest in what the press thinks of him. But he is determined to ensure his side comes out on top, and precisely because he isn’t fixated on the limelight, gets results. Britain would do well to take note.

Ireland is a small country of fewer than five million people, and any job of international significance is seen as a great prize. The EU commissioner post has long been exalted in Irish politics, and this is especially true of the coveted trade portfolio. It is one of the most powerful roles in Brussels—with huge influence over the way the single market, containing not five but 450m Europeans, trades with the rest of the world.

Hogan had a successful tenure as agriculture commissioner from 2014-19, establishing a good rapport with colleagues in Brussels and across member states. He earned respect from the commission elite. And by playing a pivotal role in negotiations with Japan and South America, he made himself a natural choice as trade chief for the new commission president, Ursula von der Leven.

[su_pullquote]“There is a certain ruthlessness to Hogan—but no one can question that he gets deals over the line”[/su_pullquote]

Over the last three years, Brussels has conducted Brexit talks through its dedicated task force, headed up by Michel Barnier—a friend of Hogan’s. Barnier hasn’t gone away; his refashioned team will play a leading role in discussions, while his widely-respected former deputy Sabine Weyand is now Hogan’s top bureaucrat, the director general for trade. Hogan, then, is not acting alone. But the buck stops with him, and the decisions he takes could affect tens of thousands of jobs in sectors from farming to car production. His willingness—or otherwise—to cut posturing politicians slack could seal the fate of the UK. So where did he come from, and how hardline will he be?

Hogan’s ascent had an unlikely beginning. Standing at 6’5” and known in Dublin as “Big Phil,” he comes from the small village of Windgap, on the edge of County Kilkenny in Ireland’s southeast. After attending University College Cork, he returned to manage his family farm and set up an insurance and property firm. But very early on he demonstrated a remarkable acumen. He became, at 25, the country’s youngest council chairman, and a few years later was elected to the Dáil for Carlow-Kilkenny, despite coming from a peripheral village miles away from the population centres. From there he progressed rapidly through the ranks of Fine Gael, becoming an indispensable figure, seen as something akin to a John Prescott figure.

But he and the party were unlikely bedfellows. To many outside Ireland and some within it, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil seem overwhelmingly similar in policy terms, but there is significant cultural divergence. Where Fine Gael emerged out of the business class and Dublin’s private schools—still seen as a natural home for doctors and barristers—Fianna Fáil’s cultural roots are more working class: it has been called a distinction of “bookkeepers” versus “bricklayers.” So Hogan stands out as an unusually folksy figure for his party—a man, so the joke goes, who would be as comfortable selling you a horse as negotiating a trade deal.

In the early 1990s Hogan forged a strong bond with Michael Lowry, another unlikely Fine Gael man, and the pair proved their worth precisely because they were cut from unusual cloth. They were happy to ruffle feathers and became indispensable “enforcers” for leader John Bruton. But Lowry was accused of corruption and Hogan suffered by association. “There was a whiff about him,” an “element of cronyism” an insider tells me. Bruton forced Lowry out, but Hogan stuck around—he had kept his hands clean enough and was too useful to discount. After a stint as junior finance minister, he was consigned to the backbenches after his staff leaked budget information to a journalist, but by 35 Hogan had become chairman of the parliamentary party.

Hogan was eventually appointed environment minister. But in late 2010 and the aftermath of the financial crisis, the Irish government received an €85bn bailout from the Troika—a consortium of the European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF. In exchange the government had to implement nasty retrenchments—and Hogan had to manage the most unpopular of the lot, the introduction of domestic water charges, which generated some of Dublin’s largest protests in recent memory and became a great mobiliser for opposition forces such as Sinn Féin.

Hogan, then, has been on both sides of the European machine at its most ruthless, and has first-hand experience of the power the bloc can exert on weaker parties. UK businesses might wonder whether this will engender empathy, or impatience with special pleading.

But in the early 2010s, despite the dirty work he was tasked with, Hogan remained remarkably popular with local associations, charming parts of the country that more urbane colleagues could not. And yet it often seemed he was on the verge of burning up his political capital. He survived one scandal in 2012 over controversial remarks about the traveller community, later receiving an apology and undisclosed damages in a settlement with two media organisations that accused him of racism. He got into another fix in 2014 when it emerged he sent CVs belonging to constituents to the head of Ireland’s new public water utility.

So when Kenny nominated Hogan for the commission in 2014, it wasn’t clear whether it was a reward for loyal service, or a bid to get an increasingly controversial figure off Fine Gael’s doorstep.

The big man stood out in Brussels thanks to his “lumbering style,” but quickly proved himself—avoiding the many potential missteps that are ever-present when dealing with Europe’s powerful farming lobby. He travelled extensively, meeting agriculture ministers, officials and government leaders. And as Brexit began to take hold of the Brussels machinery, he made sure that he was part of the conversation.

As spring dawns, there is uncertainty about who precisely will be handling the trade talks on the British side. While there is also potential overlap on the European side, it is unlikely to be a hindrance. Barnier and Hogan are close, sharing an agricultural background and provincial roots, and Barnier’s five-year stint as commissioner for regional policy heightened his awareness of how important agriculture is to rural communities.

In February 2017, Hogan attended a funeral for a French farmers’ union boss in Orleans, 70 miles from Paris. The unexpected appearance of the giant commissioner may have confounded attendees, who perhaps did not fully understand the Irish affection for funerals. But it provided the perfect opportunity to show respect to France’s powerful farming lobby while also rubbing shoulders with then-president François Hollande, his ambitious protégé Emmanuel Macron, and Barnier. Hogan and Barnier chatted Brexit over breakfast, and Hogan took the opportunity to lay out Ireland’s perspective. Soon he had “managed to open other doors” in Brussels “for his colleagues in Dublin,” wrote Denis Staunton in the Irish Times in 2017.

The EU completed in principle the long-delayed trade deal with Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, during his tenure at agriculture. Having kicked off negotiations in 2000, the EU wanted the deal done. Hogan’s role was to lead on certain chapters, mastering yards of technical detail on tariff rates for beef, “geographical indicators,” and standards on caged hens. The deal he helped deliver dismayed sections of the farming lobby, however, who felt their interests had been sacrificed. Among them were the large beef farming communities of rural Ireland. Many in Hogan’s former constituency will feel the effects.

There is, then, a certain ruthlessness to Hogan. But no one can question that he gets deals over the line. In 2017, agriculture was again proving a serious sticking point in talks between the EU and Japan. A deal was moving into view, but a seemingly intractable issue over dairy produce could have torpedoed the entire agreement. Hogan—thanks to friendly assurances that he understood the potential impact on Japanese agriculture, coming from a farming background himself—resolved the impasse.

As Brussels gears up for more Brexit talks, and also negotiations with an unpredictable United States president, Hogan’s elevation is a vote of confidence in his deal-making credentials. The EU will need them: some in Brussels, wrote Jack Ewing in the New York Times, “think his rawer style will make him a better match for the current occupant of the White House.” Hogan is unconcerned if the Americans find him pugnacious; he has criticised Trump’s “reckless approach” to global leadership, and is happy to stick his neck out to defend European interests against the US, as he did during recent tensions over Airbus.

[su_pullquote]“Expect Hogan to become the next shadowy EU figure to dominate British headlines”[/su_pullquote]

He starts with a full inbox that goes way beyond Brexit. He is pushing for reform to the World Trade Organisation, ending its impotence in Trumpian trade wars. He will be involved in EU efforts to counter Russian influence on its eastern borders by drawing frontier states further into the EU economic orbit. And all the while he will be navigating Europe’s tense trading course between an erratic US and an ascendant China.

As for Brexit phase two, Barnier and Hogan, however they split the roles, will cooperate closely. These operators know how to work to their mutual advantage.

As a man who comes from one of the EU’s most europhile countries, Hogan fully believes in the European project. He’s been clear that the UK should not expect an easy ride and would never pass up an opportunity to extract a political price. In the end, though, he is a pragmatist. He is also (a friend of his tells me) an “anglophile,” and not interested in punishing Britain for the sake of it. Hogan has shown he can work to deadlines, but if it was in the EU’s interests, he would accept the UK extending the 31st December deadline. And he will not be blind to the possibility that Boris Johnson may need political cover to do this. Despite his technocratic role, the political angle will not be lost on this instinctive politician. If trade talks go awry, it will more likely be because of British bloody-mindedness than spite from Hogan.

Above all, he is a man who knows how to win—and for him, one friend told me, that means forging an acceptable deal to both sides. And while it may be easy, from afar, to view him simply as a bruiser, it was his credentials as a fair—if robust—negotiator that won him the trade portfolio in the first place.

Before long, expect Hogan to become the next shadowy EU bogeyman to dominate British headlines. He will not be troubled by that. After all, as one colleague warned, those who underestimate him “do so at their peril.”

Sticking points

Where the negotiations may falter, by Catherine Barnard 

The UK and the EU say they want a trade deal with each other but this will not be easy. Some are arguing that we start from a position of alignment and so this will be the easiest trade deal in history. But this is not the case, because in one sense it is unprecedented. Never has a deal been done to make trade between nations more difficult than it was before, but that is what leaving a single market means.

Then there is a question of time. The more complex the relationship, the more likely it is to count as a so-called “mixed agreement” which needs to be ratified by all 27 EU national parliaments—and also regional parliaments in states like Belgium. This will take months, so the deal will need to be concluded by early autumn 2020; a lack of time will itself limit the ambition of any deal.

This brings us to structure and content. For the EU, any agreement needs to be contained in a single “governance” wrapper. This would require a role for the European Court of Justice in the event that EU law is engaged. And the EU also wants the UK to comply with level-playing-field conditions—with rules on state aid and social, environmental and consumer matters—to avoid the UK, a large economy on its western flank, from undercutting its standards. It also wants access to the UK’s waters for fishing.

For the UK, this is totally unacceptable. London wants a number of separate agreements with the EU on different aspects of trade, each with its own governance arrangements and definitely no role for the European court. It is also allergic to any suggestion of compliance with the level playing field. This makes a trade deal difficult to achieve. Negotiators will do all they can to avoid it, but we may reach a point where a no-trade-deal Brexit becomes unavoidable.