‘We have to put forward someone of highest calibre – not just someone loyal’ – Kelly

If Ireland is to retain the European Commission trade portfolio, the government “will have to put forward someone who is of the highest calibre and achievement – not just someone who has been loyal”.

That’s according to Ireland South MEP Seán Kelly, who spoke to AgriLand about Ireland’s chances of holding on to the hugely important and influential Commissioner for Trade job.

The position is now vacant following the resignation of Phil Hogan last night (Wednesday, August 26).

A resignation of a commissioner is extremely unusual. In fact, it has only happened once before. There is no particular reason that Ireland’s next nominee to the commission can’t ‘slot in’ to the trade brief. But, likewise, there is no particular reason to allow it either.

Kelly explained that it’s all at the behest of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

The MEP suggested that, if President von der Leyen was to allow Ireland to keep the trade gig, then she would “insist on having a say” on who the government here nominated.

That’s why, according to Kelly, it is “interesting that she has asked for Ireland to nominate both a male and a female for the role”.

At present, the College of Commissioners is comprised of (including President von der Leyen and not including Hogan) 14 men and 12 women.

Kelly suggested that such a move would allow President von der Leyen to even up the gender balance in the commission.

A gender-balanced College of Commissioners had been one of President von der Leyen’s main priorities when she took on the role…and a breakdown on 14 of one gender and 13 of the other would be as close to gender-balanced as it could get, with 27 total commissioners.

Affording President von der Leyen the opportunity to do that may “straighten Ireland’s hand” in retaining the trade position, Kelly indicated.

But he stressed that even then, “nothing would be guaranteed”.

The process of appointing a new commissioner isn’t as straight forward as appointing a new government minister.

First, the government will have to nominate a candidate, which Kelly says will likely happen next week.

After that the European Parliament will have to hold a hearing with the proposed candidate, which is the standard procedure when someone is proposed as a commission candidate – though this is generally supposed to happen when the entire College of Commissioners is appointed at the start of a new term.

Following that, the parliament will then vote in favour of – or against – that candidate, and if so – providing the other relevant EU bodies are happy with the candidate – the candidate will be officially appointed.

However, the commission president will likely give some indication before that time which portfolio she wants that candidate to take.

Potential nominees

Kelly suggested the names of three men and three women who might be in line for nomination.

For the men, he suggested that Minister for Foreign Affairs (and former Minister for Agriculture) Simon Coveney would “be favorite”, given his experience in dealing with Brexit-related issues.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar would be another possibility, as would David O’Sullivan, a former secretary general of the European Commission and EU ambassador to the US. However, the fact that O’Sullivan is a civil servant rather than a politician might put him at a disadvantage, Kelly noted.

For the women, Catherine Day, another former secretary general of the commission, will be a strong contender, though again, that fact that she is not a politician might rule her out.

Apart from that, Mairead McGuinness will have a strong chance, having a wealth of experience of working in Europe, and the third female candidate mentioned by Kelly was Minister for Justice Helen McEntee.