Ready, set, go! The race is on for ‘Big’ Phil’s Replacement in Brussels

By Eduardo Lopes September 1, 2020 4:39 pm

While 2020 has not been anyone’s best year, this rings particularly true for Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Since being appointed in December 2019, her Commission has faced a global pandemic and economic disaster, the tensing of trade relations with the USA and a rising suspicion towards China, growing concerns over Turkey’s actions in the east Mediterranean, pro-democracy demonstrations in Belarus, and frustrating negotiations with a departing United Kingdom. The resignation of her top trade official, whose Irish nationality would become of strategic significance once the Brexit transition period ends at the end of the year, is the last thing Ms von der Leyen needed after her short summer holidays.

Indeed, on 26th August, Phil Hogan, the EU’s Trade Commissioner, announced his resignation after breaching several COVID-19 guidelines during a trip to Ireland that left the country in rage. With his departure, the Commission loses an experienced politician and two-term European Commissioner, seen by many as a competent and tough negotiator.

Despite countless bumps on the road, the show must go on and the Commission President has swiftly requested that the Irish government submits new candidates to replace ‘Big’ Phil Hogan. Keeping true to her original promise of a gender-balanced(-ish) Commission College, the President asked for both a man and a woman candidate, adding that a reshuffle of portfolios is incoming once the new Irish Commissioner is appointed.

The EU-bubble has now turned its eyes to Dublin, as candidates begin to come forward and express their interest in the job. But who will the Taoiseach send to Brussels for an interview with the Commission boss?

Fear not, as the Whitehouse team presents you the top three contenders:

 

Simon Coveney

Seen as the favourite for the role, and interested in the race, the Foreign Affairs Minister and former Tánaiste has strong chances of making it to the finish line.

A distinguished figure during Brexit negotiations, Mr Coveney would raise the profile of Ireland as a major force in the EU, taking on the role left by the United Kingdom. A former Member of the European Parliament and Irish Minister for Agriculture (2011-2016), Defence (2014-2016), and Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government (2016-2017), Simon Coveney is an adaptable politician familiar to Brussels. Moreover, his experience could ensure Ireland keeps its current highly regarded trade portfolio, which the government is keen to maintain.

Speaking to Irish broadcaster RTE on 31st August, Simon Coveney said he is not ruling himself out as a candidate to replace Phil Hogan, though national politics has been “and still is” a big part of his life.

Coincidentally, serving a term as European Commissioner until 2024 could serve as an opportunity for Mr Coveney to further raise his profile at home, in time for the next Irish general election in 2025.

 

Mairead McGuinness

One of the most visible Members of the European Parliament, Mairead McGuiness MEP is a strong contender to make the move from Rue Du Luxembourg to Rue de la Loi.

An agriculture journalist and accountant, Ms McGuiness entered politics in 2004 when she was elected a Member of the European Parliament for Fine Gael, having joined the Agriculture Committee where she was an influential figure in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform talks. She was elected First Vice-President of the European Parliament in 2017 and again in 2019, a role which makes her stand out in the 751-seat chamber. As a Member of the Parliament’s Committee for overseeing the Brexit process, Ms McGuiness has undoubtably rose to become one of the highest-profile politicians in Brussels.

Speaking to Irish media this week, Ms McGuiness was clear in stating: “My name is in circulation and yes I’m interested in being the commissioner”.

The promotion from MEP to Commissioner is not unprecedented in the Brussels bubble. In the von der Leyen Commission, Adina-Ioana Valean, the Romanian Transport and Tourism Commissioner also made the jump from the European Parliament to the European Commission. Moreover, Ms McGuiness would help to increase the gender balance in the College of Commissioners, which prior to Phil Hogan’s departure stood unbalanced, with 15 men and 12 women.

Her profile and experience would best suit the Agriculture portfolio in the Commission, a role currently occupied by Polish Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski. A reshuffle could be President von der Leyen’s opportunity to rebuke Poland and give it a less prominent portfolio, a symbolic move in response to the rule of law violations seen in the country.

 

Frances Fitzgerald

Another figure throwing her hat in the ring is Frances Fitzgerald MEP, a colleague of Ms McGuiness in the Fine Gael benches of the European Parliament hemicycle. Although not as visible as Ms McGuiness in Brussels, Frances Fitzgerald spent a decade in the Irish cabinet. Recently elected as an MEP in 2019, she preceded Simon Coveney as Tánaiste (2016-1027) and served as Minister for Business, Enterprise, and Innovation (2017), Minister for Justice and Equality (2014-2017), and Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (2011-2014).

Speaking to the Independent on 31st August, Ms Fitzgerald stated: “I would like to express my own interest, based on 20 years in politics and public life, with an NGO and then reaching to the highest levels of Government. I feel I would have the level of experience necessary to the role.”

Frances Fitzgerald is owed reparations from the Irish government, after a 2018 report found she “selflessly” resigned in the national interest, after being accused of interference with a case of malpractice and corruption while Minister of Justice, claims she refused and of which she was later cleared.

 

President von der Leyen hopes to have a new Commissioner as soon as possible, with the Taoiseach expected to make a decision this week. With nominations for European Commissioner being remarkably filled with symbolism and national party interests, all odds stand equal in the race for the job.

Hang in tight and may the best and less problematic candidate win!

The Whitehouse team are experts in providing public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union and beyond. For more information, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at chris.whitehouse@whitehouseconsulting.co.uk.

By Eduardo Lopes September 1, 2020 4:39 pm

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