The first hearings of the Commissioners-designate took place in the European Parliament on 30th September. One of the first to be questioned was the Irishman Phil Hogan who appeared before the Trade Committee. He is no stranger on the European stage: currently he is Agriculture Commissioner and was able to do relatively well in his hearing. However, from the AK’s point of view, some of his replies were too vague and there was especially a lack of commitment with regard to sustainability.
Hence, once he received the support of Parliament, Phil Hogan would begin his second term as Commissioner. Based on initial assessments, things are looking promising: there are no major scandals and his replies to questions in writing and during the 3-hour hearing were coherent and fact-based. Hence, according to known comments of MEPs, the Committee awarded him a positive grade – however, not without voicing some critical points, which are shared by the AK.
Who is Phil Hogan?
The Irishman took his first political steps regionally with the Conservative Fine Gael Party and was later appointed Minister for the Environment of the Irish government. In 2014, the son of a farmer transferred to the position of Agriculture Commissioner. In this capacity, he made a significant contribution to the negotiations regarding the EU-Japan Trade Agreement. Since then, Hogan is known as an assertive negotiator, who says what is important to him and he puts pressure on whilst remaining fair at the same time. This also became clear in his statements on Brexit and the trade relations with the USA: Europe should not let itself be bullied. Trade is always a give and take and has to happen on a fair foundation based on respect.
What is to be expected of Hogan as Trade Commissioner?
These approaches to trade policy were also made clear in the replies to questions and the hearing in Parliament. Right at the start he affirmed the commitment to multilateralism and underlined the significance of the World Trade Organisation. The USA is currently blocking the nomination of judges to the WTO’s appellate body. So far it has not been possible to find a solution to prevent the appellate court from becoming unable to act in December 2019. In this context, the current possibilities for tariff-sanctions by USA aimed at the EU regarding the Airbus/Boeing dispute were also discussed. This could trigger a trade conflict worth billions and make the current negotiations between EU and USA significantly more difficult. However, this is not the only trade relation with conflict potential: following Brexit, a trade agreement will be negotiated between the EU and Great Britain and more talks will also take place with China. With regard to China, Hogan intends to negotiate an investment agreement by 2020.
Biggest criticism: Sustainability
Even though Hogan was able to answer all questions on the Sustainability Chapters, he remained vague. A view shared by many MEPs. The most positive was his confirmation that the Commission will appoint a Chief Trade Enforcement Officers in future, who will monitor the implementation of the trade agreements by the partner countries and who will initiate appropriate measures to ensure that they adhere to - among other - the Sustainability Chapters. In particular the current South Korea case, where working conditions are appalling and where the government does not abide by the existing Trade Agreement with the EU, has shown how much work has still to be done in the field of sustainability. However, Phil Hogan failed to fully commit to its enforcement. Therefore, Bernd Lange, the Social Democrat Chair of the Trade Committee, summarised that Phil Hogan had acted confidently during the hearing, that he had not made any mistakes, but that he had been too vague in answering some questions. Hence, the official summary of the Committee would include some homework for Hogan regarding the enforceability and importance of the Sustainability Chapters. Thus, there seems to be no significant change of direction regarding trade policy, which, however, would be necessary.