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Dust off your CV: The EU is going to need a new trade chief

Dust off your CV: The EU is going to need a new trade chief

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WANTED: A commissioner to navigate the increasingly rough seas of global trade, avoiding shipwreck and guiding the European Union into calmer waters.

If FTA is just another three-letter acronym to you, there’s no need to apply. But if you’re a no-nonsense negotiator who can close out the Free-Trade Agreements that are eluding Brussels, while defending its green agenda and placating politicians who fear that opening markets will cost jobs and votes, it’s time to polish up your resumé.

The next trade commissioner will get to run a department where Brussels calls the shots on behalf of the EU’s 27 member countries. But they will take over at a time when, in an increasingly polarized and protectionist world, the free flow of goods is no longer widely seen as a worthy end in itself. 

The right candidate will be a diplomatically skilled politician — or a politically skilled diplomat — who can juggle competing aims while wrangling with the power centers of the bloc’s two major counterparts: Washington and Beijing.

“You need a profile that can work in all these different areas to coordinate them,” said former Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy, adding that, in addition to trade, the role now spans the environment, development and diplomacy.

“If I’m the headhunter, I’m going to ask for a bit more [money] because it’s a more complicated profile to find,” Lamy told POLITICO in an interview.

With voters electing a new European Parliament in early June, serious horse trading for roles in the next Commission will only start when EU leaders meet on June 17. Once the lineup falls into place, the 27 nominees will undergo scrutiny by what polls predict will be a more right-wing Parliament. Dates for those hearings are still to be set.

Should he be nominated by his home country, Latvia, for a third term, current EU trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis has made clear his interest in moving to a role related to Ukraine’s postwar reconstruction

So, with the field of contenders yet to take shape, POLITICO spoke to former and current commissioners, experts and policymakers to build a profile of the ideal candidate.

The art of the deal

Amid today’s deepening geopolitical rivalry, the role of trade czar has become more complex. To be the right fit, you’ll need to be a multi-tasker.

Earlier commissioners, like Belgium’s Karel De Gucht in the early 2010s, could pride themselves on racking up one FTA after another — with Canada, South Korea and Ukraine, among others. 

Nowadays, increasing pushback from potential trade partners against EU laws that impact them directly — such as rules on deforestation-free supply chains — means that landing such bilateral deals has become a lot harder. 

Amid today’s deepening geopolitical rivalry, the role of trade czar has become more complex. | Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images

Voices in EU institutions and capitals also warn against “overloading” the trade boat with other goals, like the green transition or curbing migration. And, while sealing FTAs is still the top demand of industry, it’s no longer the only key performance indicator for the role.

The next commissioner will need to travel the world to close out thorny trade negotiations, advocating for the EU while considering the concerns of counterparts on the other side of the negotiating table. Negotiations on long-awaited deals with the South American bloc of Mercosur countries and Australia have become fractious.

“You can’t be a geopolitical union if you don’t engage with the rest of the world through free-trade agreements,” said Phil Hogan, who held the EU’s trade portfolio at the start of the Ursula von der Leyen Commission. 

To facilitate these talks, the seasoned candidate will need to defend the EU’s wide array of rules in pursuit of climate neutrality, like the deforestation regulation and the carbon tax. In that respect, pre-existing high-level contacts in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil would be a distinct advantage.

They should also achieve progress on sectoral agreements and non-binding pacts on raw materials and green energy. These have grown in importance under Dombrovskis, who sealed a host of such mini-deals which are easier and quicker to negotiate than FTAs but do not compare in terms of trade impact. 

Soft … but secure 

As Brussels’ dance between Washington and Beijing becomes more of a rap battle and less of a waltz, the EU’s next trade chief will need to be an excellent diplomat. 

Prior experience as head of government or foreign minister is a big plus — Dombrovskis was Latvian prime minister, while De Gucht was Belgium’s top diplomat. 

With the EU executive accelerating its crackdown on what it sees as China’s unfair support for companies undermining EU rivals, with probes ranging from electric vehicles to hospital equipment, advancing the bloc’s economic interests while fending off retaliation by Beijing will be key.

Over the course of his mandate, Dombrovskis told POLITICO, the Commission has “developed a number of new tools and have become more systematic in trade defense and enforcement, defending our interests and rights when others are not playing by the rules.”

“It’s important that Europe has those tools at its disposal and is ready to use them if necessary.”

And there’s another threat across the Atlantic: the potential return of Donald Trump to the White House. The presumptive Republican candidate has caused alarm by threatening to impose import tariffs across the board, although, looking through the campaign rhetoric, there’s much in common with the trade stance of the Joe Biden administration.


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For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Still, the next commissioner would need to deal with a more antagonistic United States as trade feuds rumble on. The EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council — a forum that has at least helped to keep things civil — would almost certainly disappear should Trump return.

Teamwork makes trade work 

The right candidate will need to be a team player because the EU’s trade policy is no longer … well … just about trade. 

Over the next five years, the EU’s internal competitiveness is bound to take center stage — potentially at the expense of the external dimension of the portfolio. What’s more, the bloc’s objectives, especially its climate and environment goals, are increasingly at odds with the trade portfolio.

“The next trade commissioner should understand that climate and trade policy can be mutually reinforcing,” said Emilie Kerstens, a researcher at climate change think tank E3G. 

Collegial collaboration with other departments will be vital , notably with those responsible for the internal market, internal partnerships, competition and environment — and there will be turf wars too.

“Directorates general that have, up until now, never been in charge of trade files are now writing regulations that have strong effects on external trade and supply chains,” said trade expert David Kleimann at the ODI think tank. He added that the Commission’s trade department was now being “marginalized” more often in inter-departmental consultations.

Whether that trend continues will depend, at least in part, on who becomes the next trade commissioner.

Jakob Hanke Vela contributed reporting. This story has been corrected to say that Dombrovskis is currently serving his second term as a commissioner.

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