The Irishman who will negotiate the UK’s post-Brexit trade agreements with the EU has appealed to UK politicians for a return to hardheaded pragmatism- and less emotion.
EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan, 59, from Kilkenny, said he hopes there will be no more talk of “punishment beatings” as once falsely suggested by Boris Johnson.
Mr Hogan, a former farmer and county councillor before entering national politics where he became an Irish government minister for Fine Gael, was the Agriculture Minister in the last commission.
Michael Barnier will remain the overarching coordinator of the future relationship between the EU and the UK- but it will be Commissioner Hogan negotiating the Free Trade Agreement.
Trade between the 500 million strong European Union single market and the UK, the world’s fifth largest economy, was worth €760 billion last year.
In an exclusive interview with the Irish World, Mr Hogan spelled out, in plain English, where we are with Brexit and what he expects will follow.
“If the Conservatives win the election on the 12th of December, I would expect that we would be proceeding on the basis of what’s already agreed between the European Union and the United Kingdom.
“If there’s an alternative government, led by Labour, there is clear indications that there will be an attempt to clarify some issues and put the result of those clarifications to a referendum.
“(Obviously) we cannot do anything until after the 12th of December result is known.”
But he said, people are being fundamentally misled by the mantra of ‘Let’s Get Brexit Done’ as if it was a single act:
“What people have to realise is that the Phase One agreement we have reached under the Withdrawal Agreement is only the beginning of the process.
“All of the issues regarding the future relationship between the EU and the United Kingdom are very important and they will require intensive negotiations over 2020 and, perhaps, a little longer.”
Commissioner Hogan was asked what was the most swiftly negotiated Free Trade Agreement he knew of. He replied:
“Five years, with Korea.
“But we are in a different situation here with the United Kingdom because we are not starting from zero, it has been in the EU for 45 years.
“A lot of the questions the United Kingdom government will have to ask itself is which regulations do they not wish to be part of, rather than negotiating new policy areas and new regulations, that they wish to be aligned with the European Union.”
Asked where he anticipated there might be protracted negotiations or difficulties he replied: “Financial services, fisheries and the question of trading on a level playing field will take some time and a number of difficult meetings.
“I think that the British consumer will want to be assured that standards are not going to be reduced in any way from the high level of EU standards that both EU and UK customers have become accustomed to – both in relation to food standards, environmental regulations, and all of the various high quality standards that everybody has become accustomed to.”
Asked about the so-called swashbuckling Singapore-onthe-Thames, low-wage, low regulation vision for the UK that has been pushed by the greatest enthusiasts of Brexit over here, he replied:
“Well it’s a nice soundbite but I don’t think there’s any reality to it and we will certainly see that very clearly during the course of the negotiations as they take place in the second phase of our post-Brexit talks.”
He went on: “You have to pool your sovereignty in certain ways to achieve good outcomes at an EU level that you cannot achieve on a national level.
“Trade is a wonderful example of that. It is an EU competence, we’re able to punch as 500 million people in a market negotiation.
“I think the United Kingdom will find out, rather negatively, in the future in relation to independent trade deals that they will find it difficult to get better deals than they have already been part of in the European Union.”
“I hope that the United Kingdom, post-Brexit, will look at the second phase of the negotiations as an opportunity to bring about stability and predictability again for both the United Kingdom and the European Union and that we will act in a spirit of good will and good faith to get this resolved as quickly as possible without rancour and the good will that is necessary to achieve a pragmatic outcome for both sides.”
Asked about his call for more pragmatism, he expanded: “Well, I hope that we will get more pragmatism in the future rather than emotion when it comes to debate around the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
“We have engaged with each other collectively for 45 years in terms of many important and difficult policy debates over those years.
“We regret very much that the people of the United Kingdom, particularly England, has decided that they no longer wish to be part of the wider European family in a collective way.
“That does not mean that I will be looking backwards, either in relation to history…or in relation to ‘punishment’ which some commentators in certain UK media have tried to portray as a possible attitude of the European Commission.
“We will look forward – rather than backwards – as to how we can cooperate together in so many different aspects of political, economic, social, cultural and environmental life, science and innovation, defence and security in order to ensure we have the closest possible relationship to each other post-Phase Two of this process.”
Mr Hogan comes from a political party, Fine Gael, that has often found itself sympathetic to traditional Conservative Party values but admitted to being amused at conjecture from some parts of it that Ireland would ever re-join the United Kingdom:
“I think it’s difficult for some politicians at a senior level in the United Kingdom to understand that Ireland is a very open country.
“It had to be an open country over the centuries because we always had to look outwards in order to get the employment, to get the various commercial and international experiences through our history, it meant that we had to emigrate.
“There’s no inferiority in the Irish psyche about having to go abroad, whether it was the UK or the US, Australia or the European Union, to find an income to raise a family.
“Irish people are well able to immerse themselves in the cultural experiences of others.
“(But) this has been difficult for the United Kingdom and I think that has resonated a little bit in terms of what motivated people to vote against the European Union, where they allowed themselves to become a more, perhaps, insular, post-colonial, UK – which Irish people just cannot understand.
“We have no difficulty in reaching out to others.
“We see that with the solidarity we got from the European Union in relation to the Brexit negotiations where we had 26 friends that understood the Irish situation.
“(Because of that) Ireland was able to punch above its weight in relation to achieving a very good, positive political agenda to ensure that the island of Ireland is not in any way thrown into disarray or again into the conflict that we’ve come through over the years, with the help of the Good Friday Agreement.”
He also feels that the fact he is an Irishman, and former Irish minister, will work to the advantage of both the UK and the EU, and Ireland. Above all, he describes his style as transactional and not process-driven – he likes to make deals and fix problems.
“It is true that because I am Irish, I am able to hit the ground running in relation to many of the issues that will be negotiated between us.
“As a former Irish government minister and somebody that understands the close trading relationships and political relationships between the island of Ireland and Great Britain, over 35 years of public life, well then, that would be considered, I am sure, by both sides to be an advantage.
“We all have a vested interest in having the closest possible relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom.
“We have so many trading relationships built up between various actors in the supply chains.
“I expect that pragmatism that I can bring to the table in relation to trade will be helpful to resolve many of the issues that may seem difficult or intractable at the moment.”
He added: “I do have some experience of the Trade agenda because I was Agriculture Commissioner working closely with the Trade Commissioner to complete Free Trade Agreements around the world.
“We’ve had very good success since 2014 in completing sixteen Free Trade Agreements or upgrading them in various ways.
“Some of the issues I would be familiar with, particularly when it comes to the food sector but, of course, food is only a small proportion of the overall trade chapter to be completed in any of the more ambitious deals I’ve just mentioned.
Editor’s note: In addition to Brexit the EU Trade Commissioner is responsible for the trade relationship between the EU and the United States; the trade relationship with China; the knock-on effects to the EU of the US-China trade war; seeking reform with like-minded partners of the World Trade Organisation; completing an investment agreement with China; and completing a free-trade agreement with the continent of Africa.