Premium

European Commission names Irish Brexit critic to handle EU-UK trade talks

'Big Phil' Hogan will lead trade talks with the UK on behalf of the EU
'Big Phil' Hogan will lead trade talks with the UK on behalf of the EU Credit: Melanie Wenger

The European Commission yesterday (TUES) named Phil Hogan, an Irish politician with a hatred of Brexit, to lead the department that will negotiate a free trade agreement with Britain.

British negotiators face the daunting prospect of facing “Big Phil”, who will team up with Sabine Weyand, the former deputy chief Brexit negotiator on November 1. 

Mr Hogan was Ireland’s EU commissioner for the last five years and has regularly criticised the British government over the Irish border issue. 

Ms Weyand is the top trade official in the commission and the formidable German is well-known for her scathing analysis on the consequences and challenges of Britain quitting the EU.

Mr Hogan said the “penny was dropping” with the British and the chances of a Brexit deal were increasing. He said that talks were heading towards a Northern Ireland only backstop.

“Mr Johnson has made a proposal in the last few days talking about an all-Ireland food zone, he told the Irish Times, “If we can build on that we certainly might get closer to one another in terms of a possible outcome.”

“I remain hopeful that the penny is finally dropping with the UK that there are pragmatic and practical solutions that can actually be introduced into the debate at this stage, albeit at the eleventh hour, that may find some common ground between the EU and the UK.”

Incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announces Ireland's Phil Hogan as candidate for EU Trade Commissioner during a media conference at EU headquarters in Brussels, Tuesday, Sept. 10 Credit: Virginia Mayo/ AP

Mr Hogan is a close ally of Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, who on Monday warned Boris Johnson that the future trade negotiations would be even harder than the talks over the withdrawal agreement.

Mr Varadkar tweeted, “It's a definite advantage to have an Irish person in charge of this crucial brief over the next five years.”

The commission negotiates trade deals on behalf of the EU member states and its trade commissioner is one of the most influential in the 27 strong “college”. 

The appointment, which must be approved by the European Parliament, will be read as a strong show of support for Ireland as the Brexit deadline looms. It also signals that Brussels’ approach to Brexit will not change despite the new administration taking power.

Under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, trade talks would begin in the transition period after Brexit. If there is a no deal Brexit on October 31, Mr Hogan’s DG Trade will be in charge of negotiating a free trade agreement with Britain. He will demand a backstop style solution to the Irish and payment of the 39 billion pound Brexit bill as a precondition for reopening talks with the UK.

Ursula von der Leyen will replace Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, the day after the October 31 Brexit deadline. She announced what roles her new commissioners, one from each member state, would have in Brussels on Tuesday.

Mrs von der Leyen said,“The Brexit, should it happen, is not the end of something but it is the beginning of our future relationship and I want this relationship to be a good relationship."

She said that Michel Barnier's stint as chief Brexit negotiator could be prolonged if there was an extension but that Mr Hogan would take care of the trade talks which would follow a deal or no deal. She insisted the EU was prepared for no deal. 

She warned that, according to EU treaty rules, Britain would have to nominate a commissioner if it asked for an extension to the deadline, although that is disputed in Brussels. 

The British government refused to name an EU commissioner because it plans to leave the bloc on Halloween.

Phil Hogan

“Big Phil” was given the trade portfolio after playing a crucial role as agricultural commissioner in a breakthrough in trade talks with the South American Mercosur bloc, despite the opposition of Irish farmers. 

The 59-year-old Fine Gael politician came to Brussels five years ago after his popularity at home nosedived when he introduced a hated water charge at the height of the financial crisis. 

He has served as the commission’s attack dog during Brexit, branding Boris Johnson “unelected” and accused him of “gambling with the peace process”.

Sabine Weyand

The German EU official has earned a reputation as a no-nonsense negotiator capable of dismantling the British government’s claims over Brexit. 

Ms Weyand, regarded in Brussels as the brains behind the Withdrawal Agreement, worked closely with Olly Robbins to formulate the Irish border backstop. 

Second only to Michel Barnier, Ms Weyand, a civil servant for 20 years, has a blunt approach, dismissing plans for a technical solution to the border issue as “unicorns”. 

Ursula von der Leyen

Ursula von der Leyen was Germany’s defence minister until she was plucked from relative obscurity to lead the EU’s civil service. 

Born in Brussels to a senior EU official, Mrs von der Leyen has rowed back on her previous support for the creation for a United States of Europe but firmly supports closer defence cooperation among EU countries. 

Her candidacy was confirmed by a slim majority of just nine votes by MEPs furious that a system tying the commission presidency to the results of the European elections was junked before her appointment by EU leaders.