Phil Hogan has dipped his toe into the pool of candidates vying to become global trade chief, but now he must decide whether to take the plunge.
Brussels on Tuesday ramped up the pressure on the Irishman to choose whether he’ll officially run for the top job at the World Trade Organization — or stay in his current job at the European Commission, which many liberal EU countries say they prefer.
Hogan is wagering he could get the post in Geneva by peddling his ample experience in EU trade negotiations — both currently as trade commissioner and formerly as agriculture boss. However, he has yet to officially enter the race: Last week, Hogan confirmed prior reports from POLITICO that he’s “exploring” whether to throw his hat into the ring for the position, which should ideally be filled by September.
Hogan’s boss, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, is now forcing him to make a move. On Tuesday, von der Leyen’s spokesman Eric Mamer announced restrictions on Hogan’s public appearances, in an effort to isolate EU trade policy from possible conflicts of interests emerging from his interest in the WTO job.
He will also need to seek a sign-off from Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis on any trade policy decisions as long as he’s considering the position.
“We don’t want him in Geneva, we want him in Brussels” — an EU diplomat
The new rules mean Hogan is no longer supposed to speak publicly about his WTO bid as long as he isn’t officially a candidate, two Commission officials told POLITICO.
People close to Hogan said he would take a leave of absence from his job as commissioner if he decides to apply for the post, like former commissioner Kristalina Georgieva did during her failed bid to become U.N. secretary-general in 2016.
But a group of liberal EU countries is growing increasingly worried that his departure would weaken the EU’s free-trade agenda.
The Netherlands, in particular, is concerned that Hogan leaving would set off a major reshuffle within the Commission in which the trade portfolio could end up falling into the hands of more a protectionist country, such as Italy or France, two EU diplomats said. Other liberal EU countries and industry lobbies echoed those fears.
“We don’t want him in Geneva, we want him in Brussels,” said one Western EU diplomat.
At a meeting of EU trade ministers last week, France, the Netherlands and Belgium were among a group of countries that were decidedly lukewarm on Hogan’s candidacy, saying Europe should keep open the possibility of endorsing a non-EU candidate. “We don’t necessarily want to search outside the EU, but we shouldn’t close that door yet either,” said Dutch Trade Minister Sigrid Kaag.
A diplomat from another Western European country went even further and said, “We specifically said that we should be open to African candidates given the EU’s renewed attention for Africa and the fact that they never held the post.”
A senior French official also described Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as a “good candidate.”
Only the Baltic countries, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Portugal explicitly supported the idea of an EU candidate, according to an attendant’s notes from last week’s meeting, seen by POLITICO.
However, even the diplomats from the most skeptical countries said their governments would not vote against Hogan if he was nominated as a candidate.
Members of the European Parliament said gender should also be part of the considerations, as many feel it is long time for the WTO to have its first female leader. “Hogan clearly is not a woman,” one EU lawmaker said.
Even with the backing of EU countries, it would still be a major gamble whether another European could get the WTO job: Trade relations between the EU and the U.S. are at a major low point and Washington could campaign to block Brussels’ candidate.
EU diplomats, as well as liberal MEPs and industry officials, said they feared that a failed run for Hogan would damage the EU’s trade interests.
“Any EU candidate would be blocked by the United States,” a diplomat from another EU country said, pointing out that six out of the nine previous world trade chiefs have been Europeans.
Hogan indeed had an unexpectedly bumpy start to his WTO campaign after the U.S. said it would consider backing a candidate from a developing country.
At last week’s ministerial meeting, Hogan told reporters that he had discussed his potential candidacy with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. “I can confirm that we had a conversation about this some time ago,” Hogan said. “Ambassador Lighthizer is very much of the view that a developed country should assume the responsibility of the director general of the WTO.”
But, a few hours later, his American counterpart contradicted him. “Ambassador Lighthizer does not support any candidate at this time, nor does he feel that a candidate must necessarily be from a developed country,” said Lighthizer’s spokesman Jeff Emerson.
Better in Brussels
The EU diplomats, as well as liberal MEPs and industry officials, said they feared that a failed run for Hogan would damage the EU’s trade interests in the longer term.
“His candidacy is leading to a lot of frustration with EU capitals precisely for this reason: It can harm EU trade policy in the future, just while we’re facing such big challenges,” said one MEP from a Benelux country.
“It’s a risky move,” said one EU diplomat. “If he doesn’t make it, he’s weakened. Even if he makes it, will he manage to reform the WTO? It just doesn’t make any sense.”
People close to Hogan insist he simply believes he is the best candidate for an important job. At a moment when the multilateral trading system is facing an existential crisis, he hopes to act as a bridge between China and the United States, they said.
The same people said Hogan originally may have applied two years into his job as trade commissioner — but outgoing WTO chief Roberto Azevêdo decided to step down a year early. “No one would have thought that it’s strange” if he had applied for the job in September 2021, when Azevêdo’s mandate was originally set to end, said one person familiar with Hogan’s thinking.
Azevêdo’s surprise departure forced Hogan to take a bigger risk. “If anyone can pull that off, it’s him,” said an official in Dublin.
“He’s a shrewd political operator, I would not underestimate him.”
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