On Tuesday, incoming Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced the distribution of policy portfolios among the 27 nominated Commissioners for the 2019-2024 period.
Notably, Ireland’s commissioner, Phil Hogan, has been given the all-important trade portfolio.
The Irishman is not new to the EU scene; he serves in the current Commission as agriculture commissioner. But now with responsibility for the highly important trade portfolio, if confirmed Hogan and his team will oversee future EU-UK trade negotiations.
Speaking after his nomination, Hogan said he is “very honoured and pleased to get such a substantial economic portfolio.” Reiterating the EU position on Brexit, he stated that a partial backstop is not acceptable and that the UK will have to accept all obligations in the Withdrawal Agreement before a free trade agreement can be negotiated.
The incoming trade commissioner has been critical of Boris Johnson as well as Brexit more generally.
Nevertheless, Hogan is optimistic that a deal can be reached, adding “I remain hopeful that the penny is finally dropping with the UK that there are pragmatic and practical solutions [that] can actually be introduced into the debate at this stage – albeit at the eleventh hour – that may find some common ground between the EU and the UK.”
The Irish Times said his appointment is “both a tribute to his widely regarded work and an expression of solidarity with Ireland over Brexit”.
Overall, the incoming Commission is making leaps forward with its unprecedented gender balance and new, ambitious portfolios in charge of a ‘European Green deal’ and a ‘Europe fit for the Digital Age’.
However, some of von der Leyen’s choices have not escaped criticism.
Several commissioners are currently subject to ongoing investigations over issues such as alleged fraud and corruption.
Hungary’s commissioner, Laszlo Trocsanyi, was given the enlargement and neighbourhood portfolio. Yet Human Rights Watch referred to Trocsanyi as “a key architect in eroding rule of law and democratic institutions in Hungary”, sparking debate over his suitability for overseeing reform in EU candidate countries.
Particularly, the decision to create a new portfolio named ‘Protecting Our European Way of Life’, given to Greece’s commissioner Margaritis Schinas, has come under fire for reflecting the language of the far right and “fascist thinking”.
With the portfolio encompassing migration and security, the EU branch of Amnesty remarked that “linking migration with security in the portfolio of the ‘Commissioner for Protecting our European Way of Life’ risks sending a worrying message.”
Prominent MEP Guy Verhofstadt tweeted: “there is a European way of life that deserves protection. It’s our desire to live in a free and tolerant society, our love for democracy, our attachment to the free market and strong social security. From Stockholm to Naples, from Dublin to Riga…our ‘European Way of Life’ is NOT implying we want a white supremacist Europe. That’s actually Europe’s Original Sin and we have to fight it every single day.”
The nominated college of commissioners will now come under scrutiny in the European Parliament during their confirmation hearings. With the new Commission requiring approval from MEPs, intense questioning can be expected.
No UK commissioner has been selected as Britain is currently due to leave the EU on October 31, just one day before the new Commission takes office. However, von der Leyen noted that if a new Brexit extension is granted, the UK will have to nominate a commissioner.