Fine Gael MEP Maireád McGuinness has emerged as the clear favourite to become Ireland’s next European commissioner.
Ms McGuinness was nominated by the Government on Friday along with Andrew McDowell, the outgoing European Investment Bank (EIB) vice-president, to fill the vacancy created by Phil Hogan, who resigned after controversy over his adherence to Covid-19 health advice.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she would interview both candidates early next week to assess “their qualifications for the job” before making her choice. The chosen candidate will then be subject to scrutiny and a vote in the European Parliament.
It is understood that the “economy that works for people” portfolio, currently held by the Latvian commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis – who has become the interim trade commissioner – may be allocated to Ireland. Sources in Brussels and Dublin said Ms McGuinness was the very strong favourite to be selected.
Dr von der Leyen narrowly missed out on reaching her goal of attaining a gender balance in the college of commissioners when she formed her cabinet last year. She asked Ireland to nominate “a woman and a man” who might replace Mr Hogan.
“This is her chance to get gender balance in the commission,” a senior Brussels official said. “The president really held all the cards this time, and Dublin had none.”
Fine Gael sought to play down the fallout from a difficult week which saw fierce wrangling behind the scenes over the appointment. Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney was initially keen on the post and was seeking to retain the trade portfolio, but the preference in Brussels for Ms McGuinness saw him eventually withdraw.
Speaking about Mr Coveney’s decision to remain in Dublin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said he was really glad he “hasn’t allowed” his name to go forward.
“One thing I can say about that is Simon Coveney is somebody with enormous ability and certainly would have been a top-class commissioner had he decided to go forward.”
Ms McGuinness has a high profile in Brussels after serving as vice-president of the European Parliament since 2014, while Mr McDowell argues his experience in helping the EIB become a green investment bank could help the EU towards its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.
Ireland is viewed as having a slim chance of retaining the powerful trade portfolio vacated by Mr Hogan, despite Dublin lobbying to hold onto it.
Roles in the commission are finely balanced to reflect the electoral results of the pan-EU political parties, and the European People’s Party, to which Fine Gael belongs, is keen for the role to pass to another of its members.
EPP figures spoken of as potential candidates for trade include Johannes Hahn of Austria, who is budget and administration commissioner, and Mr Dombrovskis.
Nominees must be cleared for conflict of interests and undergo a hearing in the European Parliament, before the new make-up of the commission is approved by a vote.
A packed policy agenda means that Dr von der Leyen will be keen to settle the issue without delay, but the process can be lengthy. Britain’s commissioner Jonathan Hill resigned in the wake of the Brexit vote in 2016 and his successor Julian King did not take office for 10 weeks after his nomination by Westminster.