Brussels trade role up for grabs as Ireland puts forward EU candidates

Ireland is set to lose the EU’s coveted trade policy portfolio as European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen prepares to vet contenders sent by Dublin to replace Phil Hogan as the country’s member of the bloc’s executive arm. 

Dublin met Ms von der Leyen’s demand to put forward two candidates — a man and a woman — to succeed Mr Hogan after he was forced out of the commission over his breaches of Covid-19 restrictions in his native Ireland.

The Irish government has nominated Mairead McGuinness, the first vice-president of the European Parliament, and Andrew McDowell, a former vice-president of the European Investment Bank, as its two contenders to become the country’s new commissioner. 

“I will interview them early next week on their qualifications for the job,” Ms von der Leyen said on Twitter. 

But EU officials are already warning that, whoever is chosen, Ireland is set to lose the coveted trade policy portfolio that Mr Hogan left less than nine months into a five-year term.

One said it was a “lost cause” no matter whom Dublin had put forward given the need for Ms von der Leyen to show that Mr Hogan’s departure under intense national political pressure would have consequences.

Others pointed to the importance of the trade policy role, which entails negotiating with other economic powers such as the US and China. Mr Hogan had served as a national minister and as EU agriculture commissioner before taking on the role, while neither Mr McDowell nor Ms McGuinness can boast such levels of executive experience. 

The Irish government said in a statement that both candidates had the “experience, skills and capacity to serve and to make a contribution in the most demanding roles”.

Officials see Ms McGuinness as the clear frontrunner to take Ireland’s seat at the commission’s top table, citing factors including Ms von der Leyen’s desire to use Mr Hogan’s departure as an opportunity to honour her pledge to lead a gender-balanced team. Ms McGuinness has extensive experience in Brussels as well as a strong reputation in the European Parliament, which will hold a confirmation hearing for the successful candidate.

Speculation is rife in Brussels as to what portfolio Ms von der Leyen will choose for Ireland’s nominee, and who in her existing team of national commissioners will take over trade. 

One of the constraints facing the president is the need to preserve the political balance between the EU’s powerful centre-right, centre-left and liberal political families. Mr Hogan, hailing from Ireland’s Fine Gael party, was one of the pillars of the centre-right European People’s party (EPP) within the commission.

Officials note that one option would be for Ms von der Leyen to hand the trade portfolio to the commission’s executive vice-president for economic policy, Valdis Dombrovskis, who was placed in temporary charge after Mr Hogan quit, and who also hails from the EPP. 

But that would create its own complications, as Mr Dombrovskis would then have an enormously wide portfolio stretching from financial services to trade. 

Another option is Finland’s commissioner, Jutta Urpilainen, who is at present in charge of development policy and partnerships with international organisations. Ms Urpilainen, a former finance minister and deputy prime minister, is highly regarded by Ms von der Leyen but hails from the centre-left.

Officials suggest she could either take over trade, or part of Mr Dombrovskis’ existing portfolio, with Ireland’s new commissioner being assigned Ms Urpilainen’s current job. 

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