News Comment

Sunday 21 September 2014

Creighton, not Hogan, should go to Brussels

Former Europe ­minister would stand greatest chance of ­landing big-hitting role when commissioner portfolios are handed out, writes Dan O'Brien

Published 06/07/2014 | 02:30

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24th October 2013 - Brussels, Belgium - Pictured at the summit of the European Peoples Party (EPP) prior to the European Council meeting were, left to right, 
Lucinda Creighton T.D.
Photo by Peter Cavanagh [Must Credit]
24th October 2013 - Brussels, Belgium - Pictured at the summit of the European Peoples Party (EPP) prior to the European Council meeting were, left to right, Lucinda Creighton T.D. Photo by Peter Cavanagh [Must Credit]

The practice of doling out important public jobs for purely political reasons is so embedded that it is often taken for granted. The gifting of Ireland's European commissionership by the government of the day is a case in point.

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Since Ray MacSharry went to Brussels 25 years ago, subsequent appointments by successive governments have been made for reasons of convenience, expediency or as a "reward". The best interests of the country and the boosting of influence in Europe - which should be the only real criteria considered - have hardly entered into the equation.

Ireland is certainly not alone in the haphazard and politicised way it uses its right to nominate a commissioner, but some countries are more strategic than others.

Denmark is one example. Its government decided five years ago to seek the climate change job early on in the appointment process. Ten years ago the Danes targeted the agriculture portfolio. They put the relevant sitting ministers forward in both cases and succeeded in securing both jobs.

Finland is another example of a country that sends its best to Brussels. The Nordic state's 43-year-old prime minister has recently stepped down to join the commission. He is guaranteed a top job. Their last commissioner was Olli Rehn. He wasn't even a politician when appointed and got the job mainly because he knew Brussels backwards, having been an adviser in the commission and an MEP. Prior to Rehn the Finns' commissioner had been their top diplomat in Brussels before moving to the Berlaymont.

The importance of having a powerful voice in Brussels can hardly be understated. The commission is something akin to a federal European government. Although its range of functions are more limited than a national government, in the areas where the commission has powers, it has very considerable power.

It is in every member country's interests that the person sent to Brussels wields as much clout as possible for two separate reasons. Although commissioners are forbidden from doing favours for their home country and must act in the "European interest", they usually see the world from a national perspective and pursue agendas that they would pursue in their own country. They rarely push policies inimical to their home country's interests. An effective and successful commissioner also helps to raise a country's profile and generate goodwill for his or her home nation. A bad commissioner can do exactly the opposite.

The second important function of commissioners from a national perspective is the screening role they play for "the country I know best" (the politically correct code commissioners use when discussing their home country). When proposals of any kind are made in Brussels, each of the commissioners can see pitfalls and difficulties that could arise in their home country. A heavyweight who understands the full range of issues the commission deals with and who has the intellect and charisma to influence others around the table is a huge asset for any nation.

How the new team of commissioners is put together between now and the changeover in November is likely to be different in some respects from the past. Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourger who was confirmed as the next commission president last Friday week, can claim to have a democratic mandate, having been the candidate put forward by his centre-right grouping which won most seats in May's European Parliament elections.

No previous commission chief in waiting has had such a mandate. This should give Juncker more clout in dealing with member states on all issues, including their nominees and the jobs they are given. There is even talk that he might reject candidates if he believes they don't pass muster.

Although this could happen, particularly if he suspects the European Parliament might veto a nominee in the autumn when confirmation hearings take place, Juncker is more likely to slot lower quality candidates into non jobs. And he has plenty of those to fill.

Because every member country has a commissionership, their number has grown in line with the bloc's expanding membership, which now stands at 28. That has meant that powers have been divided up again and again to ensure everyone has a job, or at least a job title.

The unwieldiness of the current arrangement is best illustrated by the fact that most member governments, including Ireland, have cabinets of around 15 people, almost half the number of commissioners (and this is despite national governments having a much wider range of functions than the proto-European government in Brussels).

In order to address the problems created by an oversized and fragmented commission, Juncker is being urged by a group of influential former senior eurocrats and others, called the Friends of the European Commission, to create five vice president roles. The five would effectively oversee groups of other commissioners. Although in theory the commissioners would remain equal in rank, in practice the five vice presidents would make up the core of the commission.

If that happens, there would be a scramble for those roles. Only the heaviest of hitters would be in with a chance. Phil Hogan, who is all but guaranteed the nomination, would not stand much of a chance. Although he has been a brave and reforming minister, his political skills are second to none and he is endowed with very considerable charisma, his career achievements do not mark him out and his dearth of international experience is a real weakness.

If the Government was seriously interested in giving Ireland the best chance of a big job it would look for the best possible candidate. The person most likely to secure a top job, including a vice president role if Juncker reconfigures the commission along those lines, is Lucinda Creighton.

There are a number of reasons for this. Juncker requires a team that is balanced in a range of ways, including gender and age (which tend to be particularly problematic because most nominees are older men). At just 34 years of age, Creighton would tick both the gender and youth boxes for Juncker.

But despite her youth, Creighton has considerable experience, having won plaudits across the continent during her time as Europe minister, particularly when Ireland held the rotating presidency in the first half of 2013.

She is also a very well connected political heavyweight. Having assiduously cultivated European contacts in the centre right European People's Party since her university days, she is not only a vice president of the EPP, but won more votes than any of the (nine) other vice presidents in the polls for those positions in 2012.

Creighton's appointment would be good for Ireland given her abilities and the likelihood of her securing a senior position. If that is not enough for Enda Kenny before he confirms Hogan, he might consider the political advantage of her departure from the national scene.

If and when Creighton launches her own right-of-centre party, Fine Gael is likely to be the biggest loser electorally. Keeping Creighton busy in Brussels for the rest of the decade would lessen the threat to Fine Gael and could even scupper entirely plans for a new party. By nominating her he would do both state and party some service.

Dan O'Brien previously worked for the European Commission

Sunday Independent

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