Sunday 25 August 2019

Phil Hogan kept away from powerful EU post to avoid conflict with tech giants

 

Phil Hogan: He could be in line for portfolios like trade and energy. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Phil Hogan: He could be in line for portfolios like trade and energy. Photo: Fergal Phillips
John Downing

John Downing

Ireland is not seeking the EU competition commissioner's post because it would risk setting this country on a collision course with the high-tech giants which are central to job creation and wealth here.

In the coming days, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will lobby the Brussels apparatus, and especially Commission president designate Ursula von der Leyen, to secure a heavy-hitting job for his nominee, Phil Hogan.

A post with serious economic clout is being sought to maintain Irish influence in the EU executive as Brexit reaches a decisive phase.

Likely portfolios being mentioned include transport, energy, and trade. A return to the current agriculture portfolio, with control of an annual budget worth €60bn, is not ruled out, though it is less likely.

The post of competition commissioner has huge direct powers to fine and discipline multinational firms and police cartels. But it carries the inevitable prospect of clashes with entities such as Google and Facebook, souring relations with Ireland, and is not being sought as it could cost investment and jobs.

There are nominally 27 commissioner posts, but only a dozen have real political relevance through direct powers and/or a large budget. The former Fine Gael environment minister has impressed over the past five years and is rated across the EU in agriculture, which has huge influence.

Seeking big role: Outgoing competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager is returning for another term in the EU. Photo: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
Seeking big role: Outgoing competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager is returning for another term in the EU. Photo: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

But competition is very keen for the big jobs.

The outgoing EU competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager of Denmark, cited as a potential commission president, is returning for another term.

The Taoiseach is not complying with a request from Ms Von der Leyen to send the name of a man and woman nominee to help her achieve a 50:50 gender balance.

Mr Varadkar is banking on the Commission having a markedly improved gender balance under its first woman president and to date five of 13 member state nominees are women.

It is clear the Taoiseach believes his best chance of bagging a big portfolio for Ireland is to stay with Mr Hogan, relying on his experience and standing in Brussels. He enjoys a good relationship with the EU Commission secretary general Martin Selmayr, who will have a say in job allocation.

It is rare for an agriculture commissioner to keep that prestige farm portfolio for a second term. But Franz Fischler of Austria did occupy the post from 1994 until 2004.

There is another precedent for an agriculture commissioner moving on to the trade portfolio.

Dutch nominee Frans Andriesson moved from agriculture to trade in 1989, having also served earlier as competition commissioner.

Irish Independent

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