Peter Power arrived back in Brussels last weekend to begin his most high-profile appointment ever in the city that has been his home almost continually for the past 25 years.
And already, the Kilmeedy man is hard at work in his new role as chef-de-cabinet for Ireland’s new EU Commissioner designate Phil Hogan, starting with preparations for Mr Hogan’s bid to be ratified as the new Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development. Mr Hogan goes before the EU’s Agriculture Committee on October 2.
“It will be a fairly, tough, arduous experience in front of up to 100 people with a lot of quick-fire questions,” Peter explains. “It demands massive work in advance. We have the brief and it runs to 700 or 800 pages. We sit down this Wednesday with some of the senior staff going through it chapter by chapter. “
Next week, they will begin putting Mr Hogan through his paces. “ There is opposition from a limited number of Irish MEPs,” says Peter. “You have to view this in the overall contest of four or five in a parliament of 751. These issues are not germane to his appointment. He is confident of his case.”
And so too is the West Limerick man who will be Phil Hogan’s right-hand man for the next five years. In that position, he will work closely with the Commissioner to “set out a political vision of where we think agriculture should go” and what is and is not possible. It will also involve giving political direction to the 1,000 staff involved in the agriculture and rural development commission with its collosal €60b budget. “These are the people who know the nuts and bolts of the policies,” he points out. “My job is to ensure there is adequate support for the Commissioner’s projects and priorities. “He will also work with a private office staff of some 20 people,ensuring it runs efficiently, preparing for cabinet meetings and sometimes deputising for Mr Hogan.
“There are lots of issues coming down the road,” Peter acknowledges. And these all carry their own problems and risks. Among them he cites the Ukraine and the EU sanctions on Russia, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the World Trade Talks.
“We need to take a position on upcoming World Trade talks. We need to make sure the interests of agriculture are not sacrificed, that there is a balanced deal and not one that sacrifices European agriculture,” he says.
“We have come through a review of the CAP and it now needs to be bedded down. The legislation now needs to be implemented. “
In what he calls the “greeening of CAP”, there was, he explains, a big emphasis put on achieving environmental goals - looking after hedgerows, the countryside, wildlife, set-aside etc. “The message we are getting is this is being done in a very bureacratic way. There is a lot of red tape and the question arises, have we got the balance right. We would be keen to cut back on red tape or rather on green tape as it has become known.”
“The Ukraine is probably the biggest issue on the agenda. The EU has decided on a political level on sanctions, and our job is to make sure the pain doesn’t fall unevenly on the farmers. Where agriculture products are banned we need to make sure there are adequate measures to minimise or to compensate.”
And there is the ongoing need to protect from challenge the share of the EU budget going to farming.
For Peter Power, this latter issue needs to be looked at in a more robust and positive way. Having worked with EU Vice-President Neelie Kroes he has experienced first hand the push to develop and invest in the digital economy for job creation. But, he points, farming and food production can be modern and efficient and can also deliver jobs and growth. “We have a a superb food industry in Ireland for example. It revolves around high value products that create jobs. And the jobs and growth agenda is a very important part of this Commission.”
Rural Development is a key part of the portfolio. “It is important that money is channelled to projects and areas of activity wider than agriculture alone. Sustainability of the rural economy is hugely important. It is very important that money is targeted and benefits the communities,” Peter argues. “There is a crisis in the rural economies. There are no easy answers. A lot of money is going into it and the value of some projects could be looked at.”
At a personal level, Peter Power is now, in many ways, where he always planned to be.
The son of Pauline and the late Sean Power, Peter grew up on the family farm in Kilmeedy where he went to school. But even as a young boarder at the Cistercian College in Roscrea, his ambition was to be at the heart of the European Commission. And he brings to his new role a wide range of experience and skills.
A graduate of European Studies at UL he also studied at University of Brussels and his first taste of work in Europe came via former MEP and farmers leader, TJ Maher. “My family would have been great friends of TJ. He took me on a trail basis and I stayed with him for four years.”
After, Peter worked in Chris Patten’s cabinet, responsible for relations with the European Parliament. After that, he became the European Commission spokesman on trade under Commissioner Peter Mandelson, when World Trade Talks were a big issue. In 2009, when Peter Mandelson became Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills in the British Labour government of the time, Peter Power was head of his press team in Whitehall.
He returned to Brussels in 2010 to the work with Vice President Neelie Kroes, responsible for the digital economy. In his most recent posting, he headed up the press team for the European Commission in Dublin.
“I have been very lucky in my time, very lucky in life, working with some very interesting, challenging people, “ Peter Power says with a certain understatement. “I have a capacity to get on with people and work well with them.”
He cites discretion, an ability to keep confidences, good judgement and reliability among his strengths. “I have good political judgement and I think I can see dangers ahead,” he says.
He is happy to be back in Brussels, a city which he likes, and is happy too to acknowledge that this is his most challenging role to date. “It is really a 14 hours a day, six days a week job,” he says. But he is clearly undaunted.
It may mean fewer or shorter visits home to Kilmeedy. But he will still be making the trips. And besides, he carries West Limerick with him in his heart.