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A tango in the jungle: Phil Hogan targets US and China in trade brief grilling

“There’s nothing for free when it comes to trade,” Hogan told MEPs this evening.

Updated Sep 30th 2019, 9:00 PM

PHIL HOGAN HAS told MEPs that he would work to secure an EU-US trade deal if he is confirmed as the EU’s new Trade Commissioner, and would use “all tools” available to make trade sustainable.

“We have an engagement with China, we do not have an engagement with the United States currently, and I hope that we will,” he said this evening. 

The EU Agriculture Commissioner has been nominated for the significant trade portfolio by the incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Hogan is technically referred to as a ‘commissioner-designate’, as he still needs the absolute majority of MEPs to secure the role.

In the next three hours, Hogan faces questions by various committees of the European Parliament: you can watch proceedings here.

Hogan gave a 15-minute speech, which was followed by 25 questions posed by various political groupings and MEPs from the trade committee; each question, answer and follow-up lasted five minutes. The Mercosur trade deal and US-EU trade relations are among the topics that Hogan has been asked about so far this evening.

Hogan, who is viewed in Brussels as an effective political operator and has been a vocal critic of Brexit, is expected to be approved by MEPs in a vote on all members of the Commission.

Earlier, Green Party MEPs Grace O’Sullivan and Ciaran Cuffe said that the party had reservations about Hogan’s appointment, with Cuffe saying that some of his European colleagues thought that he had been “an underachiever” in his agriculture brief.

The committee will vote tonight on whether to approve Hogan’s appointment – based on this, the Conference of Presidents will decide on 17 October if Parliament has received sufficient information to declare the hearing process closed. If so, the plenary will vote on whether or not to elect the Commission as a whole on 23 October.

Tonight, the chair of the EU’s trade committee said that this evening’s questioning of Hogan is “more than a grilling exercise, this is about [clarifying] our trade policy for the next five years”.

In his closing remarks, Hogan said that some may have felt that “I was a bit short with them” in his responses, but added: “Trading is about pride and about optimism… but above all it’s about trust”.

“How we trade is what matters,” he told MEPs. “How we trade has an enormous impact on the wider world… so the EU will need to be a strong global actor to demonstrate locally and globally, that the EU is committed to peace, prosperity and put an end to climate change despoliation.” 

What Hogan was asked

In his opening speech, Hogan said that trade policy needed to give EU businesses “a level playing field and protection from unfair practices”, referring to goods from China in the European market. 

Hogan was asked just one question on Brexit (from Polish MEP Danuta Hubner), to which he replied: “It’s very hard to know what direction the UK is going at the moment because they can’t seem to get a deal through the House of Commons.

Prime Minister May had a very good agreement and a very balanced agreement and reassured the EU on State aids, on food standards, on environment, on labour rights, on consumer protection and they will play a part in the mandate [of the Trade Commissioner]. 

“The European Parliament and Council will say a lot about the mandate, I’m sure.”

Hogan also proposed to strengthen the World Trade Organisation, and that he would play his part in relation to keeping the trade portfolio in line with climate change commitments – but didn’t give detail on how.

One MEP called Hogan’s proposals on how to keep trade aims in line with climate change targets “lame”. 

Hogan was also vocal on pledging to prevent the collapse of the WTO system, which he said was facing the biggest crisis since its creation: “transparency is underused… We have to protect our rules-based multilateral approach, otherwise we’re in the jungle.” 

In response to questions from the various European political groupings, Hogan said that he would work to build on the EU trading relationship with the US, calling it “the largest and deepest trade relationship in the world”.

We will build on this positive agenda and work towards a positive [resolution] – but it takes two to tango.

He frequently compared the level of dialogue with the US to the EU’s dialogue with China: one MEP said that China was “the elephant in your opening statement”.

Hogan had spoken about “creating a level playing field” by using enforcement tools and find ways “to address the distortive effects of foreign subsidies in the internal market”.

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Hogan said that as part of this, he will visit China on 5 October, his first visit as Commissioner outside of the EU.

Hogan said of the EU-China trade talks: “We have an engagement with the Chinese at WTO level. It’s not going very far at the moment.”

“We have to acknowledge that there’s business to do in China. When they say they’ll open up, we have to take them at their word – this hasn’t happened before.”

When asked about the impact of trade deals like Mercosur on farmers, Hogan said:

“I very much understand the concerns of agriculture. But when you look at the  cumulative impact [of free trade deals], you’ll see that it’s a very positive outcome overall,”  he said citing Ceta, Vietnam and Japan as examples.

He said that an economic analysis would be done on the Mercosur deal, which still needs to be confirmed by the European Parliament, and said that a separate analysis will be carried out about what all trade deals mean for farmers. He agreed that more had to be done to communicate the  benefits of free trade agreements. 

He also said that the Mercosur deal that there were benefits for the agricultural sector.

“We secured a significant win in Geographical Indicator protection… sometimes we have enemies out there who do not appreciate the intellectual property of the Geographical Indicator, which ensures high quality products.”

Geographical Indicators are products that originate from a specific region – such as Parmesan cheese or champagne. 

Following his appearance before the committee, Hogan was asked by Irish reporters whether the European Parliament had moved on from Brexit, Hogan said a lot of work had been done in the European Union for the past three years, but there was still no sign of a deal – and an extension was the most likely outcome.

- Reporting from Brussels.

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