Hogan cruises into EU trade job
In Westminster, Washington and Beijing, they can now be sure who they will be dealing with for the next five years.
Ireland’s Phil Hogan is almost certainly the EU’s new point man on trade, after breezing through a confirmation hearing in the European Parliament on Monday night.
While the socialist opposition was unconvinced by some of his answers on a greener trade policy, Hogan generally cruised through his two-and-a-half hour question-and-answer session, where topics ranged from impending U.S. tariffs on Airbus to the need for a more defensive position on Chinese imports.
While Hogan has a reputation as a diplomatic bruiser, he was a model of courtesy with the parliamentarians on Monday, and his well-briefed answers won him applause from across the political spectrum at the end of the hearing.
Christophe Hansen, spokesman for Hogan’s center-right European People’s Party in the European Parliament’s trade committee, said that the candidate had “nailed it” and would easily be approved. The Socialists and Democrats’ Kathleen Van Brempt, however, told POLITICO that his answers on green rules in the Mercosur trade deal with South America had been “very vague” and “not good enough.”
On Monday evening, three officials said Hogan would win the green light on Tuesday, but that his letter of approval would make some additional requests about the enforceability of green and labor rules in trade deals.
Bernd Lange, the trade committee chair, told POLITICO that Hogan "delivered a B in the hearing, no mistakes, but sometimes a little vague and few very clear commitments. Now there will be an evaluation letter tomorrow, which will include some homework as well."
Here are five key takeaways from his hearing:
He was tougher on China than expected
Hogan’s hearing was music to the ears of French President Emmanuel Macron, who has sought more robust trade defenses against China.
Hogan said he wanted more muscle in EU measures to screen investments from China, even though that harder line faces resistance in Eastern Europe. He also vowed to press ahead with EU rules on “reciprocity.”
These are a big French priority and effectively mean that Europe can shut public tenders for projects like roads and railways to Asian bidders, if Asian countries do not open their markets to EU bidders. Armed with this tougher approach, Hogan reckoned he could secure an investment deal with China by 2020.
The EU trade enforcer is for real
There was more good news for France when Hogan mapped out the status of a new position for the European Commission: a trade enforcer, exactly as sought by Paris. “I see this as a deputy director general status in the department of trade and that it will have terms of reference that will actually give it some teeth” to take on countries that are found in breach of World Trade Organization rules on matters like intellectual property, are subsidizing industries or demanding technology transfers, Hogan said, in a thinly veiled allusion to China.
The showdown with the US is likely to overshadow Hogan’s mandate
There was plenty of discussion about impending U.S. tariffs on Airbus, which could come as early as Tuesday, and about Donald Trump’s all-out assault on the World Trade Organization, which the U.S. president thinks is biased toward China.
While Hogan said he was “committed to working on a positive transatlantic agenda,” it was quite clear that it might come to blows. In the tariff domain, Hogan insisted that he was willing to hit back: “Europe has to stand up for itself,” he said.
In terms of the WTO, whose arbitration court could collapse in December under U.S. pressure, Hogan said that he would take a “plurilateral” approach of trying to keep the system alive with like-minded allies in the face of opposition from the White House.
... Unless it’s Brexit that overshadows the mandate
Hogan was unusually tight-lipped on Brexit but did say that he would work with the Parliament to ensure a “level-playing field” in trade and prevent the U.K. from undercutting EU standards through regulatory divergence. Much attention has focused on whether U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson would seek to weaken restrictions on genetically-modified organisms after Brexit, but Hogan didn’t give much detail on where Britain might pose a threat.
He was well-prepared but unconvincing on ethical trade
The commissioner-designate faced lots of questions on the increasing role of environmental and labor rights in trade agreements, but his answers left socialists such as Van Brempt unimpressed. South Korea was raised as a particularly embarrassing example of a country where the EU has failed to use trade leverage effectively to improve labor standards.
Hogan, however, insisted that trade did work as leverage and gave the Mercosur agreement with Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay as an example. He argued that Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro would never have made any commitments on the environment if it weren’t for the EU deal. He did, however, concede that the situation was serious, in an apparent reference to the fires and increased deforestation under Bolsonaro. “All of us are appalled by what we see in the Amazon,” he said.
Jakob Hanke and Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.