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Ireland’s Former Environment and Community Minister Nominated as the New EU Trade Commissioner

On 10 September 2019, the European Commission’s president-elect Ursula von der Leyen presented her team of 26 commissioners at a press conference in Brussels. The proposed commissioners are expected to take over the roles as of 1 November 2019, if the nominations are approved by the national governments and lawmakers without a delay. Von der Leyen has picked Ireland’s former environment and community minister and the EU’s current agriculture commissioner, Phil Hogan, for the trade directorate in the next Commission.

The European Commission’s president-elect Ursula von der Leyen revealed a list of nominees to be approved for her Commission. She has nominated Phil Hogan as the EU’s next Trade Commissioner, replacing Cecilia Malmström. Phil Hogan has been working as the EU’s Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development since 2014 and has been playing a key role in defending farmers’ interests during EU trade talks with global trade partners.

On the same day von der Leyen forwarded her mission letters to each of the 26 nominees. In her mission letter to her nominated trade Commissioner, she asked Hogan to take the lead on the EU’s post-Brexit trade deal with the UK, and establish positive, balanced and mutually beneficial trading partnerships with the US, India, mainland China and Mercosur countries. Moreover, Hogan was asked to speed up the finalisation of the EU’s already-negotiated trade agreements, notably with Australia and New Zealand, and is expected to implement the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (FTA) to create a stronger trade and investment partnership with Africa. According to the mission letter, Hogan will also be responsible for strengthening Europe’s ability to protect itself from unfair trade practices by improving the EU’s trade toolbox.

Von der Leyen has also tasked Hogan with leading the reform of the World Trade Organization (“WTO”), notably on the issues of subsidies, forced transfer of technologies and dispute settlement. To realize this goal, he is expected to launch an initiative to push forward the revamp of the WTO by streamlining the ineffective decision-making process by unanimity, which would pave the way to reach a comprehensive agreement following the next WTO Ministerial Conference, hopefully by 2022. However, he will have only six weeks until 10 December 2019, the day the WTO’s dispute-resolution body will be disabled due to the lack of minimum three out of seven Members required for it to hear any appeal.

Finally, in the mission letter, Hogan was also tasked with monitoring the implementation of climate, environmental and labour protections as well as introducing a Carbon Border Tax within the new Commission’s mandate. During a press conference, Von der Leyen described Hogan as a very fair yet determined negotiator. MLex, an EU journal, noted that this might be a strong signal of a new approach for the EU in trade-related affairs based on strengthening the position of the EU in bilateral relations with other trade partners, especially with the US and the UK.

Hong Kong traders should note that this nomination might also have direct implications on the forthcoming Brexit talks, as the second phase of talks, covering a future economic and strategic relationship will be handled by the Commission’s trade directorate. In her mission letter, von der Leyen indicated that she wants a very good free trade agreement with the UK after Brexit. According to Hogan, the UK’s negotiating hand will be weakened by its withdrawal from the EU, with his view being that the disadvantages of Brexit clearly outnumber its advantages for the UK. Considering Hogan’s outspoken criticism of the UK Government and Prime Minister Boris Johnson over Brexit, coupled with his firm and determined approach to trade negotiations, could imply that tensions between the EU and the UK are not likely to be eased by a compromise from the EU side anytime soon. As a matter of fact, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar wrote on Twitter that “He (Hogan) is widely respected in Brussels and across the EU as a skilled negotiator and someone who builds alliances. He has proven to be vociferous on Brexit, and I am sure that this will continue in his new role.”

In brief, Hogan’s experience in trade negotiations and his political background are believed to make him a strong candidate to defend both the interests of EU citizens in trade developments and the EU’s interests in the forthcoming Brexit talks, as well as to lead future FTA negotiations with major countries such as mainland China and the US.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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