Don’t expect an Irish commissioner to wave the national flag

Commissioners cannot put forward national arguments, but they can reflect local concerns

Now that Phil Hogan has fallen on his sword, it is important to consider whether his Commission mandate was a European or Irish one and what this means for the future. It was pointed out frequently in recent days that his accountability was exclusively at European level while, at the same time, it was emphasised that Ireland's national interests were at risk were he to step down. The issue, in the nature of the European Union, is complex and subtle.

Each member of the commission is required to be wholly independent of their national government. Yet commissioners are commonly and uncontroversially referred to by their nationality. Nobody bats an eyelid if, for example, Margrethe Vestager is referred to as the Danish commissioner. Paradoxically then, Hogan, like his commission colleagues, had both a European and a national dimension to his job.

As a matter of law, commissioners are formally appointed through EU procedures, even if member states start the process by suggesting names. On taking office, commissioners swear an oath to be independent of national governments. The procedures for their removal, collectively or individually, are exclusively European.

These provisions are far more than a formality. They are entirely necessary and reflect the very nature of the European Commission’s crucial role in representing the common European interest. Every day, the commission makes proposals and takes decisions that necessarily involve compromises between different concerns. Inevitably, no member state will be entirely satisfied. Indeed, often the commission must take very controversial decisions, for example on major competition cases, that will necessarily anger one or more member states, large or small equally. The independence of the commission from national governments is particularly important for smaller member states given the influence that the largest member states could otherwise wield.

Phil Hogan and his colleagues do not wave national flags in the commission. It was clear, when I worked in the cabinets of two Irish commissioners, that if any commissioner were to explicitly push a national point of view or to operate on the basis of national instructions, it would not only have been unsuccessful but would also have significantly diminished their wider influence within the commission. Commissioners spend only a small portion of their time on issues of specific concern to the country that, as convention encourages them to say, they “know best”. They focus first and foremost on the European dimension of their portfolios and, beyond that, on more specific concerns of all 27 member states as they arise.

The national dimension of a commissioner's role is, however, also of great importance. Just as the European Union as a whole is enriched by the national perspectives of its rich variety of countries, so the commission is enhanced by the viewpoints of its members drawn from across all member states. In pursuing the EU interest, the commission would be very foolish not to take account of the concerns and priorities of each member state. The commissioners, while fully loyal to their European mandate, are the most important eyes and ears of their institution. They enable it to be aware of and sensitive to the viewpoints of every country and region in Europe; and to prevent the commission becoming the faceless bureaucracy of Brexiteer fantasy.

Commissioners cannot put forward national arguments, as ministers do in the council, but they can reflect and draw attention to important perspectives. They cannot read out national instructions, but they can refer to possible consequences and precedents. They cannot wave national flags, but they can point out relevant facts.

The impact of individual commissioners depends in significant part on the size of their portfolio. An important portfolio means not only a large area of direct responsibility but also greater influence across the agenda of the commission as a whole. The trade role is crucial not only in the final phase of the Brexit negotiations but also because trade issues will remain central to the EU/UK relationship for many years, and because the wider trade agenda will impact on Europe’s relations with every part of the world, on every member state and on every aspect of their economies. There is no guarantee that the next Irish nominee to the commission will be given Hogan’s old trade job.

However, another significant national dimension to the role of EU commissioners is that they represent the face of the commission, and to an extent the EU as a whole, in their country of origin. Hence the dilemma for the Government and the approach they took to the Clifden dinner and its ramifications.

The Government was very wise not to lobby the commission president directly seeking Hogan’s resignation. That would have been both improper and counterproductive. If the commission were seen to dismiss a commissioner in response to pressure from a national government, it would set a precedent for more malign scenarios.

Bobby McDonagh is a former ambassador to London, Rome and the EU