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The new commissioner: Who's in the running for Phil Hogan's job - and will Ireland keep the crucial trade portfolio?

Picking a successor could be politically fraught.

Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

TAKEN FROM A European perspective, it’s perhaps not that surprising that the ‘Golfgate’ controversy has led to Phil Hogan’s resignation from his post as European Commissioner for Trade.

In what was an ominous sign, according to some, the furore dominated proceedings at the European Commission’s midday press briefings for three days in a row.

Close watchers of the European Union had been hard-pressed to recall another occasion when a story commanded so much attention and, given how the Commission likes to operate, something had to give sooner or later.

The Irish government is now tasked with picking Hogan’s replacement, a potentially politically fraught exercise, given the public mood.

With post-Brexit talks on the future relationship between the EU and Britain trundling along in the background, many are wondering if Ireland’s new Commissioner will be able to hold onto the all-important Trade portfolio.

Firstly, it might be worth looking at the Commission and its members’ roles within the structures of the EU.

What is the Commission?

Calling the European Commission ‘the executive branch of the European Union’ doesn’t quite tell the full story.

A unique part of the EU machinery, it doesn’t have a precise equivalent at the national level. It comprises 27 commissioners, who are nominated by the national governments of each member state.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Gavin Barrett, professor of European constitutional law at University College Dublin explained that its role is multifaceted.

“In the legislative process, its role is to propose legislation. Any laws that are proposed at a European level, the Commission proposes them,” he said.

It also enforces those laws and has a large role in shaping Europe’s external relationships.

This, Barrett explained, is because the Commission is — in theory at least — supposed to act as a neutral body.

By contrast, the European Parliament is made up of MEPs who are voted in by the electorate of each member state and the European Council and the Council of Ministers are made up of the elected political leaders of each country.

To state the obvious, those bodies represent the interests of their constituents back home.

“So who represents the interests of Europe as a whole? That’s where the Commission comes in,” Barrett said.

So was Phil Hogan ‘Ireland’s’ commissioner?

Yes and no — mostly no.

Because there are 27 commissioners nominated by their respective governments, Barrett said that there is a “certain degree of confusion” about their relationship with national politics.

That confusion, he said, sometimes leads to a misunderstanding that “Phil Hogan was our commissioner. He wasn’t. His role was actually to represent in common with all the other commissioners, the interests of Europe”.

How important to the Brexit process was Hogan? 

Over the past week, the main argument expounded in Hogan’s favour was the importance of his brief and its centrality to the Brexit process.

“As Trade Commissioner,” Barrett explains, “he would have had a lot of responsibility for what is called the Common Commercial Policy — the external trade policy of the European Union with non-EU states,” Professor Barrett explained.

Obviously, that’s a role made all-the-more crucial by Brexit. 

The EU’s efforts on that front are led by chief negotiator Michel Barnier, the head of the Commission’s Brexit taskforce.

Barrett said, “So the Commission leads those negotiations and all the expertise when it comes to trade issues comes from the Directorate-General for Trade.”

Despite the fact that commissioners are supposed to be independent of national politics and to act in the interests of Europe as a whole, Barrett and other EU experts argue that there was a clear, intangible benefit to having an Irishman in the job.

“You’d like to have Irish people walking around the corridors of power because it doesn’t do you any harm when times get tough. Things are going to get very tough towards the end of this year,” Barrett said, referring to the conclusion of the Brexit transition period in January 2021.

Why then did the Cabinet approve Hogan’s run for head of the World Trade Organisation this year?

Barrett said having an Irishman in charge of the WTO has clear benefits as well.

“But at the end of the day, we can all be done without,” he said.

Will Hogan’s replacement get to keep the Trade portfolio?

Not necessarily and, in fact, probably not, according to Professor Barrett.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland programme today, he said, “Anything is possible, I would say, but I would consider it unlikely that Ireland would retain [the Trade portfolio].

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“This is a European-level appointment and it was a European level resignation.”

Although the Irish government will have to pick Hogan’s replacement as commissioner, his replacement at the head of the Trade portfolio is “entirely dependant on who [Commission President] Ursula von der Leyen wants to replace Phil Hogan”, he explained.

It’s not a job that anyone can walk into.

To his European colleagues, Hogan had proved himself a capable operator during the lifetime of the last Commission, in which the former Carlow-Kilkenny TD served as agriculture commissioner.

With agricultural policies representing something close to half of the EU’s budget, Hogan’s former role was also considered fairly crucial.

Barrett said this morning that Ireland’s best chance of retaining the Trade portfolio is probably to nominate a new commissioner with experience of the inner workings of the body itself.

So who’s in the running?

Although commissioners tend to be drawn from the ranks of the political classes of the member states, they don’t necessarily have to be.

One obvious choice for the government might be former Tánaiste Simon Coveney, who would have to leave the Department of Foreign Affairs to take on the role. This would, of course, trigger a by-election in his own constituency, an idea the government might be cautious about entertaining, given the current mood.

Other names being floated included Fine Gael MEPs Mairead McGuinness and Frances Fitzgerald and former Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

Von der Leyen has told the Irish government to put forward both a male and female candidate. Elsewhere, it’s been reported that she’s keen for a woman to take the reins.

But if, as Barrett believes, Ireland’s best chance of retaining the Trade portfolio is to opt for a candidate with Commission experience, the obvious choices, he thinks, would be former European civil servants, David O’Sullivan or Catherine Day.

As secretary-general, Cork native O’Sullivan served in the most senior civil service role within the Commission from 2000 to 2005. Dubliner Day followed him in the role from 2005 to 2015.

Barrett told Brian Dobson this morning that by picking one of them, the government  “would optimise its chances of getting [the Trade portfolio] because they have a lot of experience of working within the Commission.

“Otherwise, I would consider it quite unlikely that we’ll retain the trade commissioner.”

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