The European Union named its new policy team responsible for navigating a raft of threats from US protectionism and tech monopolies to homegrown populists and sluggish growth.
European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen appointed Phil Hogan as EU trade chief; Margrethe Vestager will remain antitrust czar while picking up responsibility for digital affairs; Paolo Gentiloni will be the watchdog of national budgets; and Frans Timmermans will be in charge of climate protection.
The five-year portfolios represent the first stamp of authority by von der Leyen on the world’s biggest single market as it confronts economic risks ranging from the US-China trade war and a disorderly Brexit to corporate tax avoidance and public-debt mountains.
In early July, she became the first woman – and the first German in more than 50 years – to be tapped by EU national leaders to head the commission.
Vestager, Gentiloni and Hogan “I want a commission that is led with determination, that is clearly focused on the issues at hand and that provides answers,” von der Leyen told reporters yesterday in the Belgian capital, where she has spent weeks in a political juggling act to assemble a team made up of one commissioner from each EU country except Britain, which is due to leave the bloc by October 31.
The assignments are part of a 27-strong leadership team unveiled in Brussels by von der Leyen, the German ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel due to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker atop the EU’s executive arm on November 1.
The designated commissioners will face hearings in the European Parliament between September 30 and October 8, with the whole group slated to be voted on by the assembly on October 23. Von der Leyen herself narrowly won approval by the EU Parliament on July 16.
Hogan, an Irish Christian Democrat, will move to trade from his current job as EU farm commissioner – a post that complements his next one.
This is because agriculture is a key part of free-trade agreements the EU has reached with Canada, Japan and South American countries over the past five years and of similar pacts the bloc is pursuing with Australia and New Zealand.
“I know Phil Hogan as an excellent, very fair, negotiator,” von der Leyen said. “He has handled the agriculture portfolio in a brilliant way and this is what I expect of him as a trade commissioner. He will be a very fair, but determined, negotiator.”
Succeeding Swedish Liberal Cecilia Malmstrom, Hogan looks set to inherit transatlantic headaches from her: President Donald Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on European cars and auto parts based on national-security grounds.
Demands by Washington to include agriculture in a planned tariff-elimination deal that the EU wants to limit to industrial goods.
A US plan to hit a range of EU goods with duties as retaliation against European aid for planemaker Airbus SE.
Trump’s challenges on several fronts to the global commercial order underpinned by the World Trade Organisation.
Because he would run any EU talks with post-Brexit Britain on a free-trade accord, Hogan’s appointment sends two contrasting political signals to the UK.
First, because British politics has been thrown into turmoil by EU insistence on a guarantee that the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland remains free of controls after the UK withdrawal, Hogan’s new portfolio shows European political solidarity with Dublin over Brexit.
Second, Ireland is as keen as any EU country to maintain close trading ties with the UK. That sends London a goodwill gesture meant to facilitate an orderly withdrawal.
“Brexit, should it happen, is not the end of something but it’s the beginning of our future relationship,” von der Leyen said. “It is very important to have together a very good free-trade agreement because I think it will be determining the good relations we want to have in the future.”
While remaining competition commissioner, Vestager will also take on a beefed-up role as von der Leyen’s executive vice-president for digital matters. The traditionally high-profile antitrust position has become more so in recent years as a result of a commission crackdown on monopolistic behaviour by US technology giants including Alphabet’s Google and Amazon.com Inc.
The spotlight on the job has also grown because of widespread calls across Europe for global tech businesses to pay more corporate taxes.
Gentiloni, a Socialist former Italian prime minister, is due to take over from France’s Pierre Moscovici as EU economic-affairs commissioner, charged with enforcing the bloc’s limits on national budget deficits and debt loads.
The position is politically sensitive as the EU seeks both to contain eurosceptic forces such as Italy’s own Matteo Salvini who are intent on challenging Europe’s fiscal rule book and to offer room for growth-boosting domestic spending.
Gentiloni emerged as Italy’s appointee to the next commission after the country’s Socialists joined forces with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement to avert snap elections sought by Salvini, who was deputy premier in the previous, awkward, governing coalition between his League party and Five Star.
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