BRUSSELS (AP) — The incoming president of the European Union's powerful executive arm on Tuesday nominated Irishman Phil Hogan to lead future EU trade talks, which could put him in charge of negotiations with Britain after Brexit.
Hogan, whose country is set to be hit hard economically by Brexit, would also lead talks with the United States at a time of deep trans-Atlantic trade tensions. His name was among 25 new commissioners set to take up their posts in November.
Margrethe Vestager, who has angered the Trump administration by imposing hefty anti-trust fines on big U.S. tech firms, is set to retain her job as competition chief. And in what appears to be a major concession to debt-burdened Italy, former prime minister Paolo Gentiloni was offered the job of economy commissioner.
Praising Hogan as "a hard and a fair negotiator," European Commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen said that "the trade commissioner, who will have to deal with the future trade agreement we will be negotiating (with Britain), is an excellent choice."
The commission — a massive European bureaucracy headquartered in Brussels with some 33,000 staff — proposes EU legislation and ensures that the rules are enforced.
It also negotiates trade agreements with other countries on behalf of the 28 EU member countries. Once Britain leaves — Brexit is currently scheduled for Oct. 31 — London would face the long and arduous task of drawing up new trade relations with its European partners.
Hogan will join forces with former Brexit deputy negotiator Sabine Weyand, who was in June appointed head of the commission's trade directorate.
Hogan, who is currently serving as agriculture commissioner, said via Twitter that he was "very pleased" with the nomination. "This is undoubtedly one of the most important economic portfolios" at the commission and "the appointment comes at a very important time for the European Union."
In a tweet, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said the move "is a very positive development for Ireland. We sought a major economic brief in the new European Commission, and I am very satisfied that we have secured it."
Von der Leyen's new team is due in office on Nov. 1, once the members have been vetted by the European Parliament.
Hogan comes to the trade portfolio amid great tensions not only over Brexit but also with the United States over President Donald Trump's decision to impose tariffs on the Europeans, among other countries.
Trump administration officials have accused the European commission of dragging its feet in talks on a new, limited, trade agreement. But the EU team, led by Cecilia Malmstrom, insists the ball is the U.S. court.
Von der Leyen, a former German defense minister whose appointment as president was praised last week by the U.S. envoy to Brussels, sought to ease any tensions.
"I think we always should keep in mind that if we start tit-for-tat behavior, whatever our concerns, others will have the benefit of it; neither the United States nor the European Union. It's always smart to sit down and talk about these topics, to see what is in our both common interest," she said.
Trump has also been angered by the EU's aggressive moves to crack down on market abuse by major companies, particularly U.S. tech companies, which have led to billions of dollars in fines on the likes of Google and Microsoft. But not only does current competition commissioner, Vestager, retain her portfolio — she receives extra clout in a promotion that would see her become a commission Executive Vice-President.
Gentiloni's appointment as economy commissioner comes after the government in Rome narrowly avoided legal action this year over its massive public debt. Italy's previous populist administration was widely critical of the commission, accusing it of imposing economic policy on the country that was stifling growth.
The migration portfolio, currently held by Greece's Dmitris Avramopoulos, will soon be shared between two commissioners: Greek politician Margaritis Schinas — to become a vice-president with the Orwellian-sounding brief "Protecting our European Way of Life" — and Sweden's Ylva Johansson who is set to become the new home affairs commissioner.