Cowen will face tricky decision when McCreevy departs commission


Avoiding a byelection will be a prime concern when the Taoiseach is filling this EU vacancy, writes Jamie Smyth 

WITH THE European Commission's mandate due to end about a year from now, some of its members are getting itchy feet as they worry about their own political futures.

Markos Kyprianou, the Cypriot in charge of the EU executive's health portfolio, was the first commissioner to jump ship this year. In February he left Brussels to become foreign minister in Nicosia. A few months later it was the turn of Franco Frattini, who returned home to take the job of Italian foreign minister in Silvio Berlusconi's new cabinet. Earlier this month British prime minister Gordon Brown shocked everyone by recalling EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson to his cabinet. MEPs confirmed as his replacement the relatively unknown Baroness Catherine Ashton, former leader of the House of Lords.

UK transport secretary Geoff Hoon had coveted the Brussels job but Brown's political weakness at home meant he could ill afford another byelection loss. It was political expediency that handed Ashton the job.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen faces a similarly tricky decision when Charlie McCreevy steps down as internal market commissioner next year. The former finance minister has said there was no question of him either staying on in Brussels or returning to public life in Ireland when he leaves.

A vacancy at the commission usually gives the Taoiseach the chance to reshuffle his Cabinet by offering someone a top EU job with a salary of €231,000. But the defection of Fianna Fáil TD Joe Behan and Independent Finian McGrath to the Opposition benches leaves Cowen, like Brown, needing to avoid a byelection at all costs.

Cowen has a parliamentary majority of just eight seats but with his Government deeply unpopular, more financial cuts in the pipeline and a byelection pending in the late Séamus Brennan's constituency, few people would bet against this figure narrowing.

Up until now most of the speculation about who would replace McCreevy has centred around Health Minister Mary Harney and Transport Minister Noel Dempsey. Sending Harney to Europe would enable Cowen to distance his Government from an unpopular Health Minister who has been damaged by the medical card fiasco; Dempsey may enjoy a job in Brussels after tackling several tough portfolios at home. But either appointment would prompt a byelection the Government could lose.

In 1999 Bertie Ahern faced a similar conundrum over who to appoint to the commission when he led a Government relying on a razor-thin Dáil majority. Ahern plumped for a relative unknown, the former attorney general David Byrne, who served out a single term before being replaced by Charlie McCreevy.

Cowen could similarly chose a candidate from the business or legal communities. He could also follow the example of Charles Haughey, who gave the Brussels job to Fine Gael TD Richard Burke in 1982 to protect his minority government.

Most commentators would consider EU ambassador to Washington John Bruton a good choice. He would have little difficulty in negotiating the hearings organised by MEPs to assess the suitability of candidates and could expect to be handed one of the better jobs. But giving a plum job to Fine Gael would not endear Cowen to his own party, which, if it is still in Government next year, would surely need some good news to keep spirits up.

Cowen could follow Gordon Brown's example and appoint a Fianna Fáil member of the upper house to Brussels. But he would have to ensure the candidate had the requisite experience of EU affairs so as not to fall foul of MEPs. Some deputies in the European parliament may give an Irish candidate a rough ride during their hearing because of the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty. Some MEPs have even suggested Ireland should voluntarily give up its commissioner if it can't ratify the treaty as the Nice treaty envisages the new commission having fewer than 27 members.

In such a difficult terrain some in Fianna Fáil are suggesting the Irish member of the European Court of Auditors, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn. She has disappeared from public view since moving to the court in 1999 but she has a strong Fianna Fáil pedigree and an intimate knowledge of how the EU works. A former European affairs minister, Geoghegan-Quinn was the first woman appointed to the cabinet since Countess Markievicz. She later became minister for justice and transport.

"She would make an excellent commissioner given all her roles in Europe and her experience in past governments," says Fianna Fáil MEP Seán Ó Neachtain, who has worked closely with Geoghegan-Quinn in Galway.

European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, who is tipped to stay on, has consistently encouraged female appointments to the commission and regularly given them top portfolios. Could political expediency signal the return of Geoghegan-Quinn? As Mandelson's dramatic return to British politics this month showed, when it comes to making difficult choices for plum positions, politics becomes very local.