Trade commissioner role not central to Ireland’s Brexit outcome
Influence of Irish commissioner in looking after specific national interests is limited
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen addresses a press conference following the resignation of EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan, in Brussels. Photograph: François Walschaerts/EPA
Is it really vital, as much of the debate suggests, that Ireland holds on to the job of European trade commissioner?
The Government is mulling over potential replacements for Phil Hogan, who held what was an important job that was good for the country to have. But in reality the influence of an Irish commissioner in “looking after” specific Irish interests is limited.
Much of the discussion is set in the context of Brexit, with talks between the European Union and United Kingdom on a new trade deal due to conclude by the end of the year. These talks are headed by a separate team led by Michel Barnier, who reports directly to the European Commission president.
The trade commissioner is not directly involved, though will have a role in policing and managing any deal in the years ahead, including the special elements relating to Northern Ireland,
The UK ’s departure from the EU trading regime at the end of the year will be disruptive for Ireland whatever happens. However, if no trade deal is done the economic costs will rise as damaging tariffs are imposed on trade between the EU and UK, with particular implications for beef exporters. This is one danger for Ireland.
The second relates to the special arrangements for Northern Ireland and the risk that the EU and UK will not agree to a practical mechanism for how this will work in practice. The implications of this are not clear, but other measures to control the movement of goods originating in the UK cannot be ruled out, such as checks at Irish ports as goods leave for the continent.
Sources in Brussels and Dublin do not believe that the job of trade commissioner will have a central role in how this now plays out. Typically commissioners can explain national interests around the commission table, but they do not argue the national case – that it is a matter for national governments.
But now it will be a matter for the Government to make its case in relation to Brexit as the talks come to a head – and input into the separate talks on the Northern Ireland protocol. In this regard, worries about a loss of the trade role affecting the Brexit talks seem misplaced.
They will now take their course and the Government has to deal with it. The negotiating mandate is set and the earlier withdrawal agreement was designed to protect Irish interests and safeguard the Belfast Agreement.
After the end of this year, the trade directorate will oversee the EU-UK relationship, whatever shape it takes, and the implementation of the rules relating to Northern Ireland. Again, this will be driven by EU policy and the vital need to protect the single market rather than the national interest of whoever holds the trade portfolio.
The Government will be keen to hold on to the trade role, but for other reasons. It is one of the bigger jobs and gives the incumbent some clout around the commission table. Other countries will, of course, be eyeing it.
The Government would feel an Irish incumbent would be philosophically supportive of free trade and would, in particular, try to make progress on Hogan’s work in smoothing trade tensions with the United States. Ireland fears getting caught in the middle of an EU-US trade row and so recent progress here – including a deal to reduce tariffs – has been encouraging for the Government. But again, Hogan was doing this because it was EU policy.
It is worth fighting to keep the trade role because it is a big job that is important for Europe, and gives the commissioner some standing, but not because the incumbent will be able to somehow fix things for Ireland.