Phil Hogan has just been confirmed as the new European Commissioner for Trade. In this blogpost, we look at the experiences he brings to the job and the challenges he is going to encounter.
Who is Phil Hogan?
On Tuesday, September 10, the Commission President -Elect, Ursula von der Leyen announced the allocation of portfolios in the College of Commissioners. The responsibility for trade policy will lie with Phil Hogan who is currently serving as Commissioner for Agriculture.
Hogan is described as a straight-talking politician, who can be a bit rambunctious but also use his charm to achieve his political objectives. He has a close network in Brussels and was a close ally of the outgoing Commission President Juncker. In his office, Hogan had a slogan framed: “Whatever you want to do, do it! There are only so many tomorrows.”
Hogan is an Irish center-right politician who has served in many roles in his long political career. His first ministerial appointment in Ireland was Minister of State for Finance, at only 34. But he had to resign only three months later over his office leaking budget details before they had been announced in parliament.
The resignation did not fundamentally hurt his political career, only a short time later he become Chairman of the Fine Gael parliamentary party. In 2002, he lost a contest for the leadership of the party to Enda Kenny. When Kenny won the elections in 2011 – following a campaign organized by Hogan – he was made minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government.
In 2014, Hogan left the Irish government in order to become European Commissioner for Agriculture. In this position, Hogan has also been closely involved with the agriculture-related aspects of trade agreements, in particular in the EU-Japan and the EU-Mercosur deal, he has been very influential.
What Challenges Will Phil Hogan Face?
His previous experiences make Hogan well prepared for the job ahead – he brings inside knowledge on many of the issues that will be in the in-tray of the next Trade Commissioner. The European Parliament plays a crucial role in trade policy, as all trade agreements have to be ratified by it. They also have to confirm the nominations for the post of commissioners, so Hogan will have to win a majority there soon.
Since the elections in the spring, obtaining a majority has become more complicated. The traditional alliance between the conservative European People’s Party and the Social Democrats no longer holds a majority. Given the size of their parliamentary group, in many cases the Greens will be kingmakers – which means that Green policy issues are likely to become more prominent in European trade policy.
His experience as environment minister as well as some of his initiatives as agriculture commissioner shows that Hogan is knows many of the issues the Green party is keen on as well. The challenge will come when the EU-Mercosur Deal is voted on by the European Parliament. Although the agreement requires higher environmental standards, some Green politicians have argued it is not far reaching enough and should be even tougher, especially given the role of Brazil’s president Bolsonaro in weakening protection for the Amazon.
EU-US Trade Talks
The EU (temporarily) escaped Trump’s menace of levying tariffs on European cars when Juncker and Trump agreed to hold talks on a trade deal that would improve market access for the EU for US producers. However, the US government has been unhappy with the progress of these talks and with the reluctance of the Europeans to include agricultural products in such a deal. In Brussels, many fear that Trump might impose car tariffs within weeks if he views the progress as insufficient. This might be a first trial by fire for Hogan. It’s also interesting to see whether his experience in agricultural trade negotiation has had any bearing on the EU’s refusal to include these in a deal.
Whatever happens on October 31st, trade negotiations between the UK and the EU will follow. The Withdrawal Agreement – should it eventually pass – only contains temporary provisions for trade during a transition phase. Longer term the terms of trade still have to be negotiated. If there is no deal on October 31st, a trade deal will start to be negotiated – and perhaps be much more urgent for the British government in an attempt to minimize the economic fallout of a no deal Brexit.
Hogan is an outspoken critic of Brexit and the current British government. He called Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage the “Three Stooges” incapable of grasping the complexities of Brexit. As an Irishman, Hogan represents the EU country most affected by Brexit . As a former agriculture commissioner, he also knows that British farmers are among the most affected by Brexit – the EU will impose massive tariffs on agricultural products plus they lose the EU’s financial support – so he is well-prepared for any EU-UK deal involving trade in agriculture.
Even if the EU and China do not have an open trade war, there are many worries about China’s trade behavior that the US and the EU share. So far, bilateral talks, for example on an investment treaty, have yielded little concrete results. The EU will have to put more pressure of China if it wants to change the current situation. At the same time, the EU is keen to preserve a good commercial relationship with China – a tough challenge for Hogan.
Finally, the EU is committed to reforming and preserving the multilateral trading framework. Hogan has little experience in multilateral policy-making. Also, many less developed members of the WTO are hugely critical of the EU’s agricultural trade policy and want better access to the EU’s market. There is a risk that Hogan might be blamed (partially at least) for the controversial EU policies. To what extent he can overcome such a critical initial perception and give impetus to WTO reform remains to be seen. He has one asset though: As commissioner he engaged in agricultural trade talks with Kazakhstan, the host country of the next WTO ministerial conference. A good relationship with the host can never hurt.