Like many things in history, the phrase “the king is dead, long live the king” comes from France – and it underlines the seamless transition to a new monarch. This is not quite the case in the politics of the European Commission, but the current farm commissioner, Dacian Ciolos, is quickly heading for a place where he learns there are few things more past than a past EU commissioner.
I remember back in the 1990s when the then farm commissioner, Ireland’s Ray MacSharry, was being praised for delivering a truly radical CAP reform and for making sure a World Trade Organisation deal was done. He was being pressed to go for a second term, when we saw someone walk past and into the building. Mr MacSharry asked if we knew who it was and we all shrugged. It was in fact a once well known and controversial environment commissioner, Carlo Ripa di Meana. Mr MacSharry’s comment was that this proved how quickly a commissioner is forgotten and his point was that, famous as he had been for his reforms, he would go the same way.
This must be how Dacian Ciolos feels now. He came from the relative obscurity of Romanian public life to become commissioner, but his hopes of making his name as a second-term commissioner came to nothing. He has no-one to blame but his own country. The now soon to be former farm commissioner really was stabbed in the back by his own government. It played the gender political game of the Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, who promised Member States more influential posts if they nominated female commissioners. This is exactly what Romania did, dropping Ciolos for the promise of the regional development portfolio.
Ironically this happened in what was possibly his finest hour since becoming farm commissioner five years ago. He is being widely credited for being decisive and effective in managing the crisis as a result of the Russian food import ban. Securing a second term was always ambitious, but had he retained the nomination he probably would have secured it. Instead he will be managing a huge crisis until the day Phil Hogan takes over his office and he begins wondering about employment opportunities for a former farm commissioner.
For Mr Hogan this has to be an equally daunting proposition. Over the next month or so he will face a gruelling appearance before the European parliament’s agriculture committee, which must approve his appointment. Then, assuming that is successful, he will have to hit the ground running to grapple with the biggest trade crisis to face European agriculture for many years. This means that by the end of the year people will have a real chance to see how effective he will be as a commissioner – and he will than have close to five years to prove them right or wrong.
Predictably, Mr Hogan has moved quickly to name his top adviser, or chef de cabinet, and he has gone for someone with a solid track record in Brussels. He is Peter Power, who grew up on a family farm in Ireland. His first job after university was with one of Ireland’s best known former presidents of the Irish Farmers Association, TJ Maher, who became an MEP. He then went into the European Commission, serving in the cabinet of Chris Patten, and then became a spokesman on trade when Peter Mandelson was commissioner.
In fact Mr Power spent some time in Whitehall as a spokesman for Mr Mandelson when he returned to the UK. His most recent post, before being selected by Mr Hogan to return to Brussels, was as spokesman in the European Commission representation in Dublin. This is a safe, rather than a radical choice – and that might well be the hallmark of the Hogan term as farm commissioner.