Phil Hogan confirmed as Commissioner

Agriculture and Rural Development Commissioner-designate Phil Hogan was strongly confirmed following his hearing before the European Parliament COMAGRI yesterday by 32 votes to 10 on the question whether he is qualified to be a Commissioners, and by 31 votes to 11 on whether he is qualified to take responsibility for his portfolio.

There were no surprises in either Phil Hogan’s opening statement or in his answers to questions (the DG AGRI website has a copy of his opening statement and a video link to the hearing). I see no reason to revise my previous assessment of the priorities for agricultural policy under Hogan’s mandate.

There appears to be little appetite for further substantial steps towards a more targeted CAP focused on the delivery of public goods. On the contrary, the specific mandate given to Hogan by the Commission President is to increase the focus of the CAP on “jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness”. This sits well with the expressed views of the Commissioner-designate himself.

Drawing on his Irish experience, his priority in office will be to encourage growth in agricultural output as a way of creating jobs in rural areas. This does not require any change in the direction of the CAP in a more market-oriented direction (again, coming from Ireland, Hogan is strongly in favour or eliminating milk quotas) but rather ‘simplification’ of the CAP to reduce the administrative burden on farmers.

The idea that the rationale for public support to farmers is the provision of public goods got short shrift from Hogan. He repeated on many occasions that the purpose of direct payments was to provide a ‘basic income’ to farmers, but avoided directly answering the question from the Irish MEP, Luke Flanagan, who highlighted that most payments go to farmers with incomes well above the average.

His opening statement seemed to distance himself from greening and its most contentious element Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs), which he described as ‘commitments of the outgoing Commission’, perhaps overlooking that these are now legislative obligations agreed by both Council and Parliament.

However, when tackled on where he stood on ‘greening’ the CAP during the hearing, he responded that it is far too early to give a judgement on the greening elements in the CAP2013 reform. In response to questions on the three-crop rule and raising the EFA area from 5% to 7%, he cautioned that he would wait until there was evidence on how these measures were working out in practice before coming forward with proposals.

He was clear that agriculture must be sustainable in the sense that it cannot abuse its dependence on soil and water, and noted that it is good farming practice to have crop rotation, but references to agriculture as a producer of public goods and to the need to reverse the loss of biodiversity were notably absent from his discourse.

When questioned by MEPs on what he might propose to address specific problems, for example, the future of milk production in disadvantaged areas after the end of quotas, he frequently highlighted that member states now have the measures available to them, under the flexibilities of the CAP, to target particular problem issues. He specifically mentioned that 27 of the 28 member states have decided to introduce coupled payments, for example. I argued in my previous post that this greater flexibility in the name of subsidiarity is likely to mute future demands for changes in CAP regulations, and Commissioner-designate Hogan’s responses support this view.

There were two new elements with respect to my previous post on a possible timeline for the next CAP reform. One was the commitment to bring forward proposals on simplification of the CAP by the end of his first year in office, so this represents an additional ‘trigger point’ for potential CAP changes. The one example of simplification which he gave was exempting farmers with less than 15 hectares of arable land from the EFA requirements, so this may be a pointer on what to expect in one year’s time.

The second was the frequent and puzzling reference, both by Commissioner-designate Hogan himself and by MEPs, to a mid-term review of the 2013 CAP reform. No such mid-term review is mandated by the current CAP regulations. Also, it was left unclear when this would occur. It did not seem to refer to the simplification proposals which will emerge at the end of 2015. But whether it means associating a CAP mid-term review with the mid-term review of the MFF due in 2016, or whether the 2017 review of EFAs will be expanded into a more wide-ranging mid-term review, or whether it refers to the monitoring and evaluation report due by the end of 2018 (and which I have argued will really be the basis for the CAP proposals in the next MFF so more an end-term than a mid-term review) was left unclear.

Overall, Hogan gave a polished, confident and well-prepared performance before the COMAGRI yesterday, but it is clear that agricultural policy will head in a different direction compared to the Ciolos era. The latter, by the way (still the current Commissioner) received nothing but praise from the agricultural ministers at their informal Council in Milan this week, with all agreeing “he was conscientious, always on top of his brief and a pleasure to work with”, according to the AgraFacts newsletter. And a further ‘by the way’, my comment on Ciolos’ performance during his COMAGRI hearing prior to his appointment five years ago is here and is worth re-reading with hindsight.

Photo credit: EU Audiovisual Services

This post was written by Alan Matthews.

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