Thursday 19 September 2019

John Downing: 'Brussels now has a Commission  dominated by women - and Ireland better take heed'

New chief: The European Commission’s president-elect, Ursula von der Leyen. Picture: REUTERS/Yves Herman
New chief: The European Commission’s president-elect, Ursula von der Leyen. Picture: REUTERS/Yves Herman
John Downing

John Downing

It's a women's European Commission, led by a woman, Ursula von der Leyen of Germany. This new Brussels executive, which will operate from November 1 until late 2024, has the most women ever in its 62-year history.

It also faces the biggest challenges ever posed for any EU leadership. The issues range from a ticking climate bomb, to migration, to global trade turmoil to the rise of a militant right, and of course Brexit.

And what does this decidedly new-look Commission - with 13 women and 14 men - mean for Ireland?

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Brexit meant it was no big surprise that Phil Hogan's switch to the pivotal EU trade commissioner's role was the big Irish takeaway story from the appointment of the new policy-guiding Commission in Brussels last Tuesday.

Mr Hogan's new boss has clear confidence in the outgoing agriculture commissioner's ability and work-rate, as he faces into talks on framing a new longer-term EU-UK trade relationship among other global challenges.

Ms Von der Leyen, a former German defence minister, and Mr Hogan had never met before her designation as a compromise candidate for the new job last July.

The report on him from her former boss, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and his general reputation across the EU carried the day. He now has arguably the EU's most senior post - since the bloc is essentially all about trade.

But who are the others to watch? Well, many people will already know the name of Margrethe Vestager, of Denmark.

The Irish Government has €13bn-worth of reasons to remember her, as she decided as EU competition commissioner that Apple must pay back taxes to Ireland. Ms Vestager keeps her old job, but with elevated status as a senior vice-president with additional responsibility for digital affairs.

The former Danish Liberal politician is thought to have been the inspiration for the fictional feisty prime minister in the popular political drama 'Borgen', which had a big number of Irish fans.

She is known in Brussels as a fearsome adversary of the high-tech giants such as Google, Facebook and many others which have big bases in Ireland. Last year, Donald Trump paid her a backhanded compliment. "Your tax lady - she really hates the US," President Trump said of her.

Away from politics, knitting is one of her hobbies.

Another of "UVL's women" we will hear more about is Sylvie Goulard, of France. The talented former Euro MEP and high-flying French civil servant and central banker knows her way around Brussels and is close to President Emmanuel Macron.

Ms Goulard takes responsibility for the EU single market - a very hot topic in the ongoing Brexit saga.

She will also be responsible for defence issues.

Irish farmers will learn more about the new Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski, of Poland, who will take over from Phil Hogan.

He has a strong background in farming and farmer politics and comes to this job from the EU's audit service based in Luxembourg.

That appointment was part of a number of job allocations aimed at mending fences with the former Eastern Bloc states. And it has worked as the Visegrad Four, of Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, have said they are pleased with the jobs share-out. But Commissioner Wojciechowski is an unknown quantity for Ireland's agribusiness people.

You might remember the new Greek commissioner, Margaritis Schinas, for letting the cat out of the bag last January when acting as chief media spokesman for the Commission. He publicly confirmed that a no-deal Brexit would mean a hard Irish Border. It led to a big kerfuffle and some clarifications but it's still a matter for debate.

You may also hear more about Commissioner Schinas who is responsible for migration, among other things. Critics see his job title - "Protecting Europe's Way of Life" - as rather dodgy and reminiscent of the hard-right's anti-migrant slogans.

Next step is a series of tough ratification hearings at the European Parliament.

The MEPs must then approve President Von der Leyen's team before they can be sworn into office on November 1 next.

Irish Independent

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