Thursday 19 September 2019

John Downing: 'Appointment of Ursula von der Leyen as EC president good for Brexit, but keeps pressure on our tax rates'


Phil Hogan
Phil Hogan
John Downing

John Downing

Irish Commissioner Phil Hogan concedes that he never previously met his new boss. The first woman head of the EU Brussels executive, Ursula von der Leyen, had been German minister for labour, family affairs and latterly defence.

Those are all portfolios with minimal impact on key Irish EU interests such as farming, regional and social funds, and the core economic matters.

The manner of her surprise nomination by EU leaders on July 2, and the more fragmented numbers in the European Parliament, made it very hard for her to get the necessary ratification by MEPs.

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Though she did scrape the bar as she went over, with just nine votes above the required bare minimum, the 60-year-old medical doctor and mother of seven children is now ensconced in the most powerful job in the EU.

She will be in charge of a unique organisation which is far more than an administration, as it also has wide-ranging direct economic and legal powers, and its operations will have a big impact on day-to-day Irish life.

Born and educated in Brussels, and later in London, Ms Von der Leyen, like her predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, can move seamlessly between flawless German, French and English, and she has shown herself to be a powerful orator.

Through the past fortnight she has also shown considerable steel in pursuing the necessary parliament approval and can be expected to pursue her stated goals with equal determination after formally taking office on November 1 next for a five-year term.

Ms Von der Leyen has outlined a wide-ranging draft programme of aims for her term in office. These include ambitious targets for tackling climate change; a revisiting of the vexed issue of migration; a tough stance on the rule of law in former Eastern Bloc states; eurozone economic and monetary reforms; and a more developed EU foreign policy.

But Irish officials and politicians will focus more closely on what she had to say about Brexit - which was largely good news. They will also look at her comments on EU tax policy - which were less than good news.

More immediately, there is her aim of achieving 50:50 gender parity in her 27-member commission. Ireland has not complied with her request to nominate both a man and a woman, a common practice in Nordic countries for many jobs, and is relying on the experience and skills of the renominated Hogan to land a significant portfolio to maintain Irish EU influence.

In that regard, the abrupt departure of the most senior commission official, Martin Selmayr - to honour the unwritten code that a German could not hold the two key Brussels posts - is less helpful to Ireland's portfolio lobbying effort. Some officials would have hoped Selmayr could have stayed until the autumn.

Back with Brexit, the Irish good news has been her unequivocal endorsement of the EU-UK draft divorce deal done on November 25 last, insisting it cannot be reopened. She has been equally strong on the need to keep the Irish Border backstop. And her suggestion that she could countenance another extension beyond the October 31 deadline is also a positive - though the belligerent stance of the two candidates to lead the UK government is very discouraging.

In one sense, not much has changed. Taxation remains a member state competence and any change requires unanimous approval. But that also means the moral pressure on Ireland over its low company tax rates, and the administration of that regime, will continue apace - without a powerful ally as the UK quits the EU.

But it is clear Ms Von der Leyen's confirmation is welcome for Ireland. Just five "stray" votes could have begun a summer of confusion as Brexit enters its crucial phase.

Now there will be continuity in EU leadership, facing a new UK prime minister, who will certainly be Boris Johnson.

Irish Independent

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