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New E.U. Trade Chief Will Lead Prickly Talks With China. And U.K. And U.S.

2020-09-08 12:34:44

BRUSSELS — The European Commission on Tuesday named Valdis Dombrovskis, a former Latvian prime minister and senior European Union official, as its new trade chief in a reshuffle following the resignation of the Irish commissioner Phil Hogan last month.

The shuffling upsets staid Brussels politics at a particularly tense time — as Brexit negotiations sputter and as a debate around the European Union’s recovery fund hangs in the air — but was unavoidable after Mr. Hogan resigned in August over criticism that he had violated coronavirus rules.

Mr. Dombrovskis, whose gentle manner will be a departure in style from Mr. Hogan’s more blunt-talking persona, will be tasked with handling difficult trade talks with the bloc’s biggest partners and competitors: China, Britain in a post-Brexit world, and the United States. But despite their stylistic differences, experts say that they expect Mr. Dombrovskis, who has been a vice president in the European Commission focusing on the economy, to follow through on the policies Mr. Hogan set out in those negotiations.

The reshuffle was announced by Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, in a brief statement on Tuesday.

Mujtaba Rahman, a former European Commission official who is now a director at Eurasia Group, a political risk research group, said, “Von der Leyen needed a political and economic heavyweight from her existing team to take up this portfolio, given the geopolitical importance trade has for this E.U. commission.”

Before the scandal that prompted his resignation, Mr. Hogan was considered a skilled political operator capable of handling the increasingly complicated trade relations between the European Union and the rest of the world. But he came under immense pressure to step down after attending a dinner at a golf club in the Irish town of Clifden with 80 politicians and government officials, a breach of coronavirus restrictions on large gatherings.

While the two sides made modest progress in reducing trade barriers, a broad agreement had remained elusive, and the Trump administration continues to impose 25 percent tariffs on European steel. The United States and Europe trade goods and services worth $1 trillion a year, and economists agree that more open trade would help growth on both sides of the Atlantic.

The portfolio given to Mr. Dombrovskis will elevate his role in European economic policymaking, experts said, building on the important role he had already played.

“Dombrovskis was involved in all the commission’s key internal economic policies,” Mr. Rahman of Eurasia Group said. “Given the strategic importance of trade, he will arguably now be the most powerful economic voice within the European Commission.”

Mr. Hogan’s vacated role as the European commissioner for Ireland will go to Mairead McGuinness, Ms. von der Leyen also announced on Tuesday. Ms. McGuinness is a senior European parliamentarian proposed by Dublin and she will be responsible for financial services, a slice of the wide-ranging economy portfolio previously held by Mr. Dombrovskis.

The appointments of Ms. McGuinness and Mr. Dombrovskis will need to be formally approved by the European Parliament and by the European Union’s national governments before they can take office, but neither selection is expected to face resistance.


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