Dithering on Phil Hogan’s successor raises yet more red flags about this Government
Stephen Collins: Indecision on new EU commissioner stems from basic miscalculation
Frances Fitzgerald: It would be some irony if the last prominent victim of a political witch hunt was to take over the vacancy that has arisen from the latest excursion into self-destructive behaviour by the Irish political system. Photograph: Eric Luke
More than a week of dithering by the Government over nominating a replacement for Phil Hogan as European Commissioner raises yet more questions about the ability of the Coalition to tackle the really important questions facing it in the months ahead.
If the three party leaders can’t agree on such a simple matter as deciding on two names to give to European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen how will they agree on potentially hugely controversial decisions such as the Covid-19 roadmap or dealing with the massive deficit in the public finances arising from the pandemic.
The indecision about naming the new commissioner stems from a fundamental miscalculation in Government about the consequences of forcing Hogan to resign. There was an utterly naive notion that the replacement could simply take over the trade commissioner’s portfolio and carry on as if nothing had happened.
Anybody with a passing acquaintance of how the EU works knew there was never even a remote chance of that happening. Hogan was a big beast in Brussels and had acquired a powerful position on his own merits, not because he was the Irish commissioner. His replacement, whoever it is, will get a post far lower in the pecking order.
Speaking to an Irish audience by video link on Wednesday, EU negotiator Michel Barnier made no bones about how Hogan would be missed in the current phase of trade negotiations between the EU and the UK never mind his loss to Ireland. Barnier described Hogan as someone “on whom I could always count on to relay any Irish concerns to me very directly over the last four years”.
Immediately after Hogan’s departure Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney expressed an interest in going to the commission and it was widely assumed in Fine Gael that Tánaiste Leo Varadkar would nominate him for the post.
However, Von der Leyen put a spanner in the works by asking the Government to nominate a woman and a man, thus leaving her with the final choice. Given her commitment, not yet fully achieved, of having a gender-balanced commission the message was clear. Her preference is to appoint a woman.
By all accounts Coveney was furious with Varadkar for giving in to the other two Coalition leaders
The Government here was under no obligation to comply with that request as it is legally entitled to nominate just one person if it so wishes. However, under pressure from Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan, Varadkar agreed that two names would be submitted to Brussels.
The fact that the Government agreed so readily to forgo its entitlement to put forward a single name illustrated just how weak its position is. Having put Von der Leyen in a deeply embarrassing position over Hogan’s future, she owes Ireland no favours. Her clear message to the Government was nominate a man and he will get a bottom of the barrel position, allow the option of a woman and there is a chance of something better.
Coveney then had to face the reality that not only had he no chance of picking up were Hogan left off as trade commissioner, he might have had to suffer the humiliation of being turned down in favour of an alternative nominee. By all accounts he was furious with Varadkar for giving in to the other two coalition leaders on the question of submitting two names. It added another layer to the discontent already raging in Fine Gael over the Hogan episode.
As Coveney pondered his position, two prominent Fine Gael MEPs Maireád McGuinness and Frances Fitzgerald stepped forward let it be known that they were interested in the vacancy.
McGuinness was the initial favourite on the basis that she has been a member of the European Parliament since 2004 and is now a vice president of that body. She also made a name for herself during the long Brexit process as an articulate proponent of the Irish position in the parliament and also in the British media. What could tell against her, though, is that she has never held an executive position in government and is not wildly popular with the Fine Gael hierarchy.
By contrast, Fitzgerald has held a senior government position as tánaiste and minister for justice. There is considerable affection for her in Fine Gael as well as a belief that she was badly treated by being forced to resign at the behest of Fianna Fail and Sinn Féin in 2018 over a spuriously contrived issue. It would be some irony if the last prominent victim of a political witch hunt, who was subsequently exonerated by an official inquiry, was to take over the vacancy that has arisen from the latest excursion into self-destructive behaviour by the Irish political system.
The silver lining to the appointment of Fitzgerald would be that her seat in the European Parliament would go to Mark Durkan. The former MP and SDLP leader took a leap in the dark by running for Fine Gael in Dublin in the European elections. It was not the happiest of experiences for him but it would be a fitting reward if he ended up in the European Parliament after all. It would also have the advantage of ensuring that there was a continuing voice from Northern Ireland in that body.