Cowen needs heavyweight candidate as next Irish commissioner


EUROPEAN DIARY:Ireland needs to rebuild its reputation in Europe after the Lisbon Treaty No vote, writes JAMIE SMYTH

THE DECISION by EU heads of state to back José Manuel Barroso for a second five-year term as European Commission president has got everyone in Brussels talking about who will join him on the next EU executive.

Several of the current team are likely to stay on. Estonian Siim Kallas, Luxembourger Viviane Reding and Finn Olli Rehn all retain the support of their governments. Others such as the Polish nominee Danuta Hubner have lost the battle to stay on in the lucrative €230,000-a-year post. She resigned last week to take up the MEP seat she won recently when it became clear she wouldn’t be renominated by Polish prime minister Donald Tusk.

Ireland’s man on the commission Charlie McCreevy has no such concerns. He was handed the internal markets post when he joined in 2004, which is widely regarded as one of the most influential commission jobs. However he quickly made it clear he would not be seeking a second term in Brussels.

Those close to McCreevy say he doesn’t like the bureaucracy that comes with working in a college of 27 commissioners, but others criticise his low profile. “Charlie who”, was how one commission official jokingly responded to a question about McCreevy yesterday.

Another told The Irish Timeshe hadn’t done himself any favours by appearing disinterested in Brussels only to pop up in Ireland making controversial comments about the Lisbon Treaty.

McCreevy, who was a vocal proponent of light-touch regulation, was badly caught out by the financial crisis. Socialist MEPs have relentlessly attacked his performance during debates in the European parliament. He also incurred the wrath of France and Germany for opposing regulation of hedge funds.

When the financial crisis began to bite, Barroso sidelined McCreevy to ensure he didn’t suffer any collateral damage. He ordered him to do a U-turn on hedge funds and later appointed a former governor of the French central bank Jacques de Larosière to propose an overhaul of financial regulation.

McCreevy’s poor performance combined with Ireland’s No vote against the Lisbon Treaty makes Taoiseach Brian Cowen’s forthcoming decision on whom to nominate as the next Irish commissioner an extremely important one.

“Ireland has a rebuilding job to do in terms of its reputation in Europe over the next five years,” says one Irish source, who notes that every state wants to avoid the equivalent of Siberia in the commission, the post of multilingualism. “We need a heavyweight candidate to get a decent portfolio in the commission.”

Lobbying for top jobs has already started. French president Nicolas Sarkozy is angling for a big economic post for France, but for small states like Ireland, securing a decent job depends a lot on the quality of their candidates. Cowen’s conundrum is that he can’t afford to give a Government Minister the job because of the Coalition’s slender majority in the Dáil.

This rules out Noel Dempsey, Mary Harney and Mary Coughlan and leaves few potential candidates for the commission job from within the ranks of Fianna Fáil.

Munster MEP Brian Crowley may fancy his chances of furthering his presidential ambitions through a short spell in Europe, but his public coolness towards Fianna Fáil joining the Liberals may count against him.

Ireland’s member of the European Court of Auditors, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, has been mentioned as a possibility. Her elevation to the commission could free up the auditor’s job for the Green Party, which may help soothe Coalition tensions during a difficult autumn political season. Her low profile though since moving to the court in 1999 must make her an outsider.

The early frontrunner for the job is former president of the parliament Pat Cox, who has recently stepped back from his job as president of European Movement International to lead a campaign for a Yes vote in the coming Lisbon referendum.

Cox enjoyed a successful spell as parliament president between 2002-2004 and no one could question his ability to schmooze his way around Brussels.

It would also prove the perfect way for Fianna Fáil to consummate its alliance with the Liberals, the European political party it joined before the European elections. Cox could probably secure a decent job from Barroso, although his lack of cabinet experience doesn’t make this a certainty.

The most qualified candidate is former taoiseach John Bruton, who has done a fine job as EU ambassador to Washington over the past five years. Commission sources say he has the best chance of getting a heavyweight job and his appointment would send a clear message to Ireland’s EU partners that the Government wanted to rebuild Ireland’s reputation in Europe.

Giving the job to Fine Gael would not endear Cowen to his backbenchers, but desperate times require desperate measures. Such a magnanimous gesture is also not without precedent. Charles Haughey gave the post to Fine Gael TD Richard Burke to protect his minority government in 1982.

A Bruton nomination would also ensure Fine Gael is on side for the second Lisbon referendum. This is critical given that a No vote in the autumn would almost certainly result in Ireland losing its right to nominate a commissioner. (Under the Nice treaty the number of commissioners must be fewer than the number of EU states in the next commission.)

Jamie Smyth’s blog on Europe