Irish fears for Brexit talks if Hogan gets top WTO job

EU trade commissioner’s experience dealing with US seen a plus in bid for WTO role

European commissioner for trade Phil Hogan and European Commission president Ursula Von Der Leyen. Photograph: Stephanie Lecocq/EPA

European commissioner for trade Phil Hogan and European Commission president Ursula Von Der Leyen. Photograph: Stephanie Lecocq/EPA

 

Phil Hogan’s surprise emergence last weekend as a contender for the job of running the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has sparked admiration but also fears in Dublin.

There is concern that his departure from the European Commission – where he holds the key trade portfolio – would deprive Ireland of an important ally as the Brexit negotiations enter a new and potentially fraught phase.

Hogan is a heavyweight in the commission, on occasion using his public profile to play “bad cop” in the Brexit talks. He is a key player in the ongoing talks with Britain, and meets the European Union’s lead Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier almost weekly.

He would be a loss to Ireland if he went, Dublin sources concede, and there is no guarantee that his replacement from Dublin would take the same portfolio. In fact, some sources in Brussels and Dublin believe that would be highly unlikely.

News of Hogan’s candidacy, reported in The Irish Times last weekend, was taken by most observers in Dublin and Brussels as evidence that he is in with a serious shout for the job – Hogan would not have allowed his name to circulate otherwise. His commission team were informed he was considering the move last week, and the issue was discussed when foreign affairs ministers met via video conference on Friday.

Hogan’s interest in WTO issues has been evident for some time – he has been key to trying to work around the obstructionism by the Trump administration that has all but disabled the trade body from functioning. It was a key theme of a speech he gave to the European Parliament last year as it assessed whether to approve his appointment as trade commissioner.

The shock early resignation of WTO director general Roberto Azevêdo, amid global economic turmoil and after a difficult stand-off with Washington, “has obviously forced a number of people to declare an interest sooner than might otherwise be the case”, one commission source said.

Unity candidate

The EU member states are keen to rally behind one unity candidate for the post, though this aspiration could easily be derailed. Member states agree that rather than a diplomat or a technocrat, the new candidate should be a political figure, capable of wielding enough power to take on the US and push through reform.

Hogan’s experience in dealing with the US and a friendly relationship with his Washington counterpart Robert Lighthizer are seen as an advantage. But other names, including Spain’s foreign minister Arancha

González and Dutch trade minister Sigrid Kaag are also in circulation.

But the most important thing for the EU is that their preferred candidate should get the job. The candidate need not necessarily come from one of the EU member states: the bloc could decide to back a nomination made by an ally.

Nominations for the post open on June 8th and close on July 8th. The question of who the EU countries should get behind and how the decision should be made will be discussed when trade ministers meet next week. The ultimate appointment is made by a consensus decision by all WTO members through rounds of elimination of candidates. It’s a highly political process, and Hogan thrives in such situations.

One predictable effect of the news has been to ignite a flurry of speculation in Dublin about a possible replacement for Hogan if he does depart for Geneva in the autumn. Politicians think about jobs for politicians all the time, and the commissionership is one of the most sought-after posts in the gift of any government. The list of applicants would be lengthy.

If the Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil-Green government is finally put together over the coming weeks, there will be a lot of former Fine Gael ministers who might fancy the role, and consider themselves eminently qualified.

Though it is not, of course, certain that it would be a Fine Gael appointment. It would have to be agreed with the Greens and Fianna Fáil, who may have very different ideas. But a high-profile politician always stands a better chance of getting an influential role in Brussels.

Patronage is a perk of power; but it also brings its own complications. The list of the disappointed and disaffected always outnumbers those who are happy with an appointment, and such government nominations often end up as political problems. If you think that this would apply only to Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, remember the Greens had exactly the same internal difficulties over appointments and jobs the last time the party was in government. Only a few weeks ago, the Greens were forced to issue a statement denying they were seeking the job of attorney general for one of their members, whose anti-abortion views were unacceptable to some of the party’s TDs and supporters.

Potential blow

If Hogan is successful, his departure would be seen as a loss for the commission. If he tried and failed, would his authority in his current position be undermined? Officials were tight-lipped, stressing he is not even formally a candidate yet. But if successful, the move has the potential to be a blow to Ireland’s power in Brussels – a worry that some officials acknowledge.

Having Hogan in the role during the Brexit trade talks was considered a coup for Dublin. As one of the commission’s top roles, trade often goes to a second-time commissioner. Hogan came to it after being agriculture commissioner, which gave him experience of trade negotiations. It would be difficult for Ireland to find a replacement with the right qualifications, and who would also fit into the commission’s delicate political balance.

Roles are allocated to reflect Europe’s geographic and political make-up. What party the new nomination would come from – currently uncertain, given the ongoing government formation negotiations – is crucial.

The role for a new commissioner would be at the discretion of commission president Ursula von der Leyen. She might opt to reshuffle her cabinet, and put a current commissioner into the trade role, while giving Ireland one of the positions that would be freed up.

“It’s absolutely not a given that it would be the trade portfolio. These things are not inherited by the country,” one official said.

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