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Explainer: What does the European Commissioner for Trade do and why is the role important?

Phil Hogan will begin a second 5-year term as Ireland’s commissioner in Europe – this time for trade.

Phil Hogan in Berlin, January 2019.
Phil Hogan in Berlin, January 2019.
Image: DPA/PA Images

AFTER SPENDING FIVE years as EU commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Phil Hogan has today been announced as the new commissioner for trade by incoming commission president Ursula von der Leyen. 

Each country within the EU nominates a commissioner and earlier this year the former Fine Gael TD for Carlow-Kilkenny was chosen for a second time, this time by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

The new president of the commission has delegated 26 portfolios to the commissioners nominated by each EU member state – these briefs vary from jobs and economy to health, equality, and transport.

Each commissioner will work with a team of experts and policymakers to promote the EU’s agenda for their respective portfolio, which they will oversee and act as the face of. 

So today, with Ireland’s commissioner taking over trade we’re looking at what exactly the EU Commissioner for Trade does and why the role is so important.

The face of trade in Europe

Phil Hogan will act as the face of trade in Europe for the next five years.

He is expected to visit each of the member states within the first six months of his term, and will thereafter meet with national parliaments and take part in citizen dialogues and government meetings across the EU27.  

As terms of new and existing trade deals are negotiated, the commissioner will be responsible for heading up discussions and securing the best deals for the single market. 

As it stands, the EU has the largest web of trade agreements in the world, with around 70 deals in place across five continents. 

It also has more than a dozen ongoing trade deals under negotiation at this moment including deals with North America, Latin America and China. 

These trade deals have a massive knock on effect in terms of job creation – as many as 31 million jobs are created as a result of exports and trade agreements between Europe and other trading partners. 

Hogan’s appointment today to the Trade portfolio comes at a time when the Mercosur deal with Latin America sits at the top of the agenda, alongside the proposals on how to handle trade with Britain when it leaves the EU (and whether that’s with or without a deal). 

As a result, some experts in the field of EU relations, have suggested Hogan’s new role will be one of the most important in the EU over the next few years. 

“The EU is one of the largest, if not the largest, trading [blocs] in the world, it is a massive market for anyone looking to sell into Europe, let’s be honest,” Dr Aidan Regan, Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at UCD said.

“Let’s assume there is an orderly withdrawal of Britain from the EU, let’s just assume that for a minute. That obviously gives them huge influence, it’s about setting the agenda… and particularly where we are in the politics at the minute is important.

“There’s a protectionist turn in the US, so the EU’s position on world stage in terms of promoting liberal trade means the commissioner for trade represents the EU in all of these spaces, and in that sense he will be the face of the EU.”

So what’s on the agenda for the coming five-year term?

belgium-europe-new-commission Source: Virginia Mayo

In her mission statement to Hogan today, Von der Leyen outlined the approach she expects from him over the coming five-year term, including working “towards a positive, balance and mutually beneficial trading partnership”. 

She also asked him to “step up negotiations with China on a Comprehensive Agreement on investment, with the aim of reaching agreement by the end of 2020″ and to “prioritise our trade and investment partnership with Africa”. 

On Brexit, she said: “Once there is more clarity, we should be ready to pace the way for an ambitious and strategic partnership with the United Kingdom.”

In a series of tweets today, Hogan responded to his appointment saying: “This is undoubtedly one of the most important economic portfolios in the College of Commissioners and the appointment comes at a very important time for the European Union.”

“Trade is a political priority for the European Commission and one with which I have been very closely involved during my term as Commissioner for [...]
Agriculture & Rural Development,” he added. 

Will Ireland benefit from Hogan’s new role?

The former Fine Gael TD has been known to be frank and avoid mincing his words. 

His appointment, at a time when Irish farmers have been calling for greater protections for the beef industry, has been seen by some as a good thing for Ireland’s interests.

In his role as agriculture commissioner, Hogan warned the Mercosur deal should not pave the way for the EU to be flooded by South American and Latin American products to the detriment of Irish and other European farmers.

It is in this context that he is perceived as a positive influence for in Europe for Ireland’s interests. 

“This is a very important portfolio for both the Union and Ireland and his appointment is a clear recognition of the good work Mr Hogan did as agriculture commissioner over the last five years,” Sean Kelly, MEP for Ireland South said.

But Regan, the UCD international policy expert, cautioned against jumping to such a conclusion before he has even taken up his new appointment.

“Because Phil Hogan is Irish and given his background as agriculture commissioner, there is an assumption that Phil Hogan equals the beef sector in Ireland and that’s not the case,” he said. 

“He might be a strong advocate for strong competition and free market,so I would not just assume because he is Irish he will somehow be in favour of defending beef interests in Ireland. 

“It means he will be closer to their concerns and it might be easier for the beef sector to have a meeting with him perhaps or have access to him but I wouldn’t assume anything other than that.”

It remains to be seen how Hogan will settle in to his new brief but with Ireland’s economy hugely reliant on the beef sector and the Mercosur deal still to be voted in, the new EU Commissioner for Trade has a lot on his plate to work out. 

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