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Laughter and applause for Phil Hogan, as Sinn Féin challenge falls flat

Big Phil’s anticipated ‘Big Grilling’ failed to materialise at the EU Parliament this morning, and the agriculture committee has now voted to back him as commissioner.

Last updated at 2.45pm.

IRELAND’S EUROPEAN COMMISSIONER-Designate put in a polished performance this morning, at a confirmation hearing before the EU Parliament’s agriculture committee.

The Kilkenny politician spent over two-and-a-half hours answering questions from dozens of MEPs earlier. In a vote this afternoon, the majority of the panel voted in favour of his confirmation.

Irish MEPs Luke ‘Ming’ Flangan and Matt Carthy had promised to make things uncomfortable for the Fine Gael veteran during the proceedings this morning — but the format meant they were unable to follow up on their questions immediately, and their anticipated challenge didn’t appear to have the desired impact.

Hogan dealt with a question from Sinn Féin’s Carthy by reading out a letter from the MEP’s party colleague in the Stormont administration, Michelle O’Neill.

In her letter, the Northern Ireland agriculture minister warmly congratulated the Kilkenny politician on his appointment to a “prestigious portfolio”.

She also asked him for an early meeting to discuss a range of agricultural issues, Hogan said, before adding…

There seems to be a little break-down in discipline in Sinn Fein, and I hope you won’t get into trouble with it.

Effectively a political ‘smackdown’, Hogan’s response drew applause from his supporters in the chamber.

Carthy had used his brief questioning time to raise a range of issues , including the legal letters sent by Hogan’s representatives to Nessa Childers and consultancy fees at Irish Water.

The Commissioner-Designate didn’t address the MEP’s question on the Childers affair directly, but said that, as an experienced politician: “I know what parliamentary privilege is and I know what it isn’t”.

On the €180 million set-up cost of Irish water, he re-iterated his stance on the issue that ”if you’re going to set up a new system, it costs money to do so.”

Irish Water CVs

Flanagan used his question to ask whether voters could expect more ‘cronyism’ during the Fine Gael politician’s term as Commissioner, and raised the fact that Hogan had sent the CVs of constituents to Irish Water chief John Tierney shortly after the semi-state company was set up (as reported in this morning’s Irish Independent). 

Replying, Hogan thanked Flanagan for his ‘brevity’ and said he had sent the CVs in his role as a representative politician, observing that his influence must be waning, as “none of them got a job”.

The two Irish MEPs appeared frustrated not to have the opportunity to follow up on their initial questions.

The hearing

The proceedings, which lasted over two and a half hours, began shortly 8am.

His microphone picked up some brief conversations between Hogan and other politicians before things got under way officially. In an exchange with Fine Gael’s Mairead McGuinness, the MEP implied that he would have a friend in the room, if things “get too hot”…

In his opening remarks, Hogan spoke about how he grew up on a farm in Co Kilkenny, and talked up his 32-year career as a public representative. Much of that time was spent dealing with rural affairs, he said.

Setting out his priorities for his time in office, Hogan said he would comprehensively screen the Common Agricultural Policy to see how the legislation could be simplified. He said the Russian ban on agricultural products was the most urgent challenge facing his department.

McGuinness (below) – a former agriculture journalist and TV presenter - was the first MEP to contribute, with a question about the prices large supermarket chains are paying to producers.

Hogan said that if unfair practices continued, he was willing to look at legal instruments to ensure a “good and fair price for producers, and not the declining price that we have at the moment”.

Plan Bee

Hogan drew laughter and applause from the chamber early in the session, during a good-natured exchange with UKIP MEP Stewart Agnew.

The British politician asked the Commissioner Designate if he would accept an invitation to his own farm to ”inspect my wildflower mix, that hums with bees in summer”.

Hogan’s deadpan response…

Don’t expect me to farm your land as well.

Stewart Agnew of UKIP.

Hogan went on to deal with a broad range of questions from committee members over the following hours — on issues like CAP, milk quotas and biofuels.

Sustainability

Summing up, shortly after 10.30, Hogan said that agriculture should play a central role in driving jobs and growth in Europe.

The flight from the land in many of our member states is being reversed, as food production becomes a specialised and highly skilled task again. And there is a living to be made from farming right across Europe again.

He revisited the issue of sustainability, and said that farming “must not be done in a way that wastes that most precious resource, water”.

It must be done in a way that uses energy with infinite care and control.

He promised to visit all of the member states early in his tenure, and pledged to listen to all interested stakeholders “so as to ensure that the agricultural policy in the European Commission draws on the wealth and wisdom in each”.

Facing the media

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Hogan said it was difficult to assess his own performance — but he appeared pleased with how he had done.

Responding to a question from The Irish Times, he said…

I’ve set out all of my priorities and I answered all the questions for three hours and maybe you should try it sometime.
On the issue of the CVs sent to Irish Water, he again defended the move, saying politicians have made representations on behalf of their constituents since “democracy was introduced”.”I don’t think it was a mistake at all,” he said, when pressed on the issue.
That’s representational politics in the Irish sense — which I’m sure everybody is very familiar with.

Didn’t he do well?

The initial reaction, amongst MEPs and observers alike, was that Hogan had done what he needed to do…

For and against…

The various political groupings in the Parliament met afterwards to discuss the hearing, and the issue was later put to a vote by the panel…

[Note: Votes by EU committees are non-binding in these circumstances --- but they are often used as a way of raising concerns about an individual's candidacy. For a primer on how the nomination process for Commissioner works, and why committees can't veto individual nominees, check out our handy 'explainer'].

Explainer: Phil Hogan’s set to be named as Agriculture Commissioner … but what happens next?

Opinion: Big Phil wasn’t the best option for Europe… it should have been Lucinda

 

 

 

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