by Frank Schnittger
Sun Aug 30th, 2020 at 09:36:51 PM EST
Commission President, Ursula Van Der Leyen has asked the Irish government to submit both male and female candidates to replace Phil Hogan as European Commissioner while EU sources are stating that any replacement is unlikely to retain the important Trade portfolio.
This creates a number of problems for the Irish Government. Firstly, it could be argued that asking the government to submit a shortlist from which she will make the final selection is an impertinence, as it is for the Irish government, and the Irish government alone, to determine who the next Commissioner from Ireland should be (subject to EU Council and Parliament approval).
Secondly, what well qualified man, for example Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney, or Paschal Donohue, would allow their name to go forward if they could be passed over for a less qualified woman? It would destroy their political careers in Ireland if they were seen to have sought the job and were then passed over for a more junior colleague.
When you have already been appointed to high office you are not supposed to hanker after another. Hogan's reputation had already been damaged when he expressed an interest in the WTO Director General job. People who had fought for him to get the Trade Commissioner job were not impressed that he might leave for another job so soon.
The result could be that only second tier men will apply, and a second-tier woman could then justifiably be said to be the best available candidate for the job. Leo Varadkar, Ex-Taoiseach and current Tánaiste (deputy Prime Minister) and Pascal Donohue, Finance Minister and President of the Eurogroup, have already ruled themselves out of consideration.
That problem would be compounded if the nominee was then appointed to what would be considered a more junior (and less relevant to Ireland) portfolio. Hogan's prior portfolio was Agriculture, also seen as crucial to Irish national interests. Already there has been considerable chagrin expressed in Ireland about losing an experienced Commissioner in an important portfolio at a critical time, with a hard Brexit looming and EU/UK relations likely to nose dive thereafter.
But the problem was that there was no other effective way the Commissioner could have been sanctioned short of resignation/dismissal. The matter should have been discussed by the European Parliament who might have recommended a suspension of his salary for a while, or some lesser sanction. But in the febrile state of Irish and European politics right now, a calmer more long term view was not possible, and the European Parliament was not in session.
Ultimately a commissioner is answerable to the President of the European Commission, and to the European Parliament, and his fate should not have been determined by domestic Irish political considerations, even though his flouting of (advisory and not legally binding) Irish public health and social distancing guidelines was arrogant and crass. Those who have been unable to attend a funeral or a wedding were understandably angry that other rules seemed to apply to the political elite.
But we are where we are, and the race to succeed Hogan has begun. European Parliament first Vice President, Mairead McGuinness has thrown her hat in the ring. Although lacking ministerial and administrative experience, she is articulate and well known and liked in European circles and came first in the elections for Vice President of the European Parliament with 618 votes.
Another women mentioned in despatches is former Tánaiste and Minster for Justice and current MEP Francis Fitzgerald who was unfairly forced to resign in a previous controversy and was subsequently cleared of all wrong doing. She is, however, relatively new to the Brussels scene. Other previous Ministers mentioned have included former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny (who was popular in Europe during his time in office) and long serving senior Minister Richard Bruton. However all three are well over 60 and no longer front-line politicians. The EU is not yet like the US where it seems you have to be over 70 to win a presidential nomination and Senators frequently go on to serve until well into their 80's.
If the government decides to go for a technocratic appointment it could go for one of two former secretaries general of the European Commission Catherine Day, or her predecessor, David O'Sullivan who has the added advantages of being a former Director-General of the Commission Trade Directorate and Ambassador of the European Union to the United States from 2014 to 2019. So there is no shortage of well qualified candidates.
The government is, however, said to favour the appointment of a politician rather than a technocrat and some current Ministers have also been floated as possibles: principally Simon Harris, current Minister for higher Education and previous minister for health, and Helen McEntee, formerly Minister for European Affairs and current Minister for Justice. However their appointment would necessitate a government re-shuffle and by-election which the Government might be reluctant to risk at the present time after a series of missteps and scandals has caused Sinn Féin's stock to rise ever higher in the polls.
Probably the outstanding political candidate is former MEP and Tánaiste Simon Coveney, Deputy leader of Fine Gael, and well known in Brussels for his advocacy work on behalf of Ireland as part of the Brexit negotiations. Beaten by Leo Varadkar for the Leadership of Fine Gael, he may not have entirely extinguished his domestic ambitions, however, and is most unlikely to allow his name to go forward unless there has been at least some back-channel indications he would be appointed, and to a prestigious portfolio.
With the indications from Brussels being that Ireland is unlikely to retain the Trade portfolio, his candidacy is likely to be a non-starter. He is certainly remaining schtum on the issue. Commission President Ursula Van Der Leven may well have decided that Irish concerns are no longer a priority for the Commission and hand the trade portfolio to whoever the German/French axis wants in the position. A hard Brexit could result in a very different political landscape within the EU and Irish concerns will not be allowed to stand in the way of a possibly much more hardline EU approach to the UK in future.
So a women it will most probably be, in some nondescript portfolio dressed up to look important. Hogan's misadventures and misjudgements may well have given the powers that be in the EU an opportunity to re-align its personnel more in line with the realities of power within the EU, all the while giving the appearance of greater accountability to the public. The remarkable thing is the the European Parliament never even got to discuss the issue. Those in Ireland who demanded Hogan's head may well come to rue their success if Hogan's departure results in Ireland becoming much less influential in Brussels.
Yes, I know, Commissioners are supposed to work in the EU's rather than their national interests, and most of the time they probably do. But they still tend to be the point of contact for national governments with particular concerns on particular issues within the Commission's remit: An important part of keeping the Commission accountable to its member states. Covid-19 is the most important issue facing the EU at the moment and Hogan was monumentally arrogant and stupid to flout the social distancing and self-isolation rules. But future trading relations with the US and UK are also pretty important and further disruption there could greatly complicate any economic recovery from the pandemic.
No one is indispensable, and "Golfgate" and the Hogan affair will soon be forgotten. Most of the real work is done by technocratic officials in any case. But personal relationships and national affinities are also important, and it is to be hoped that EU/US and EU/UK relationships are not further damaged in future years for want of a better appreciation of common interests. At the moment Ireland is probably closer to US and UK interests than any other EU member, and could help to keep at least some bridges between us intact. The risk of very damaging rifts in the future is already very great.