Ireland’s chances of retaining European trade portfolio deemed slim

Party leaders’ discussion favours replacing Hogan with politician not former official

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen: allocation of commission cabinet jobs is at her discretion. Photograph:  Kenzo Tribouillard

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen: allocation of commission cabinet jobs is at her discretion. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard

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The chances of Ireland retaining the European Commission’s trade portfolio after the departure of Phil Hogan are regarded as slim in Brussels as the Government scrambles to find a candidate with a chance of filling the role.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan met on Friday night to discuss the issue, though no decisions were reached and the three coalition party leaders agreed to discuss the matter further.

Mr Hogan’s departure has set off a contest for the trade post between political groups and member states across Europe, who consider the brief to be one of the most powerful in the commission.

Many observers view it as highly unlikely that Mr Hogan’s replacement would be given the same job, with some sources insistent that the Government could not be seen to be rewarded for forcing the hand of the former commissioner, who resigned on Wednesday amid controversy over his adherence to the State’s Covid-19 guidelines.

A senior official at the Berlaymont, the commission’s headquarters in Brussels, said the circumstances of Mr Hogan’s departure set a “precedent” and that Ireland retaining the job would be seen to “increase the influence of national politics” on the EU body.

“There will be a massive reluctance to reward Ireland in this way . . . Anyone with the scantest knowledge of how Brussels works would know this,” the official added. “The arguments against Ireland getting trade are fairly overwhelming.”

Coveney as nominee

However, another official in the European institutions said that while it would be difficult for Ireland to retain the trade portfolio, the candidate put forward would have a bearing on the decision.

While Mr Varadkar has appeared to rule out seeking the role, there is speculation that Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney could be a nominee.

Asked if Mr Coveney would have a chance of retaining the trade portfolio, one official replied: “Yes, definitely.”

Fine Gael Ministers are understood to have discussed the matter briefly on Friday and a strong view emerged that a politician – rather than a former official, as has been mooted in some quarters – should be the nominee.

Supporters of Mr Coveney argue that his experience as Minister for Foreign Affairs and as a MEP would be sufficient to hold on to trade. But even so, most observers in Brussels viewed the possibility as slim.

Political pressure

The selection of Mr Coveney would require Cabinet changes in Dublin and a byelection in Cork South Central, and would also deprive Fine Gael of one of its most senior political figures. Mr Coveney has made no comment on his intentions in recent days.

Calls from Dublin for Mr Hogan to resign put political pressure on commission president Ursula von der Leyen and ultimately lead to his departure after a number of incomplete explanations were provided to her office.

The commission is wary of appearing to set a precedent that member states can recall their commissioners, given the destabilising effect this could have on the executive if national political currents change during its five-year term.

The allocation of commission cabinet jobs is at the discretion of the president, who has asked the Government to put forward two candidates, a woman and a man, for her consideration.

Dr von der Leyen’s ultimate choice will depend on the candidates put forward, but she opened the door to a reshuffle by saying she would make a decision on the “allocation of portfolios”, referring to more than one job change. This could mean moving an existing commissioner into trade and allocating a vacancy that arises to the Irish candidate.