4 October 2019

Phil Hogan profile: Who is the EU’s new trade commissioner?

by Barney Trimble

Earlier this month, Phil Hogan was nominated as the EU Trade Commissioner. This will be his second term as a Commissioner – having previously held the Agriculture and Rural Development portfolio – an experience he will draw on at this critical moment for trade policy.

Even though the EU has managed to conclude lengthy negotiations with Canada and Japan over the past year, Hogan is taking on a brief in choppy waters. He will have to steer potentially bitter negotiations over any EU-UK trade deal, as well as look to counter Trump’s threatened tsunami of tariffs. On top of that, the hastily completed EU-Mercosur deal has run into problems with member states: Hogan has already had to defend it in Ireland, while the Austrian parliament recently voted against the agreement.

The manner in which he approaches these challenges will set the tone for the EU’s relations with the rest of the world. Unsurprisingly, he is a vocal anti-Brexiteer: he campaigned in the UK during the referendum and has since been a frequent critic of how the UK has handled negotiations, particularly its threat of a no-deal Brexit. Having labelled Boris Johnson as one of the “Three Stooges” (alongside Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage) of the Brexit process, he has since denounced him as an “unelected Prime Minister”. When it comes to organising a free trade agreement between the EU and the UK, it is unlikely he will play nice.

It has been suggested that Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the Commission, supported his nomination largely due to his activity on this front. However, it is wrong to assume this is the sole reason for his appointment. To do so would be to overlook his wider political reputation as a capable dealmaker. In his previous Commission role, Hogan was a key player in both the EU-Mercosur and EU-Japan talks – two of the largest trade deals that the EU has ever negotiated.

Yet hopes of a trade deal will not be dead on arrival: Hogan has made some promising stances on trade policy in the past. His role in the EU-Mercosur agreement saw the opening up of the dairy sector. Meanwhile, he has criticised Donald Trump’s trade policies as “reckless” and said he vowed to make him “see the error of his ways”. On the other hand, one of his main inputs to the EU-Mercosur agreement was keeping down the imported beef quota (even with the reduction, Irish farmers are still up in arms over the deal). Then in 2017, when there were discussions about reducing the €59 billion-a-year pot for the Common Agricultural Policy by 30%, Hogan fought viciously against it and reduced the cut to a mere 5%. These protectionist policies can be argued as a response to the political situation of the EU, but it is notable that other EU figures were arguing for more open markets.

In terms of policy, Hogan is unlikely to rock the boat too much. Renowned for his ability to network and build relationships, his close relationship with Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Selmayr illustrates the skills that have allowed him to endure so long and reach such heights. The 59-year-old Irishman’s latest appointment comes off the back of a life spent in politics. Since becoming a local County Councillor for Fine Gael aged 22, Hogan’s career has encompassed regional, national, and international politics, including being the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government in the Irish government and the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development. This long political background has given him the ability to know when to act and when to toe the line. With Brexit and Trump providing existential threats to the EU, he will see that now is not the time to go rogue.

For all of his tough talk to Trump, he will, rightly, be reticent to engage in a tariff war with the US on the same scale as China has. But when it comes to dealing with the UK post-Brexit, one can imagine a scenario in which his approach is not so dispassionate.