Today (8 September) European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that having interviewed the two candidates put forward by the Irish government for the post of Commissioner, she has decided to propose Mairead McGuinness to the European Parliament. In a surprise move, the new Irish commissioner has been offered the portfolio of financial services, financial stability, and capital markets union.
Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis will assume responsibility for the trade portfolio, and will remain the Commission’s representative on the Eurogroup, in cooperation with Commissioner Gentiloni.
Mairead McGuinness has been a member of the European Parliament since 2004 and currently holds the post of First Vice-President. She is widely respected, but has little known expertise in the portfolio she has been offered having served on unrelated committees in the parliament, including: agriculture and rural development; environment, public health and food safety; and the petitions committee.
The other Irish candidate, Andrew McDowell, was a former chief economic advisor to then Taoiseach Enda Kenny. He had just completed a mandate as Vice-President of the European Investment Banking. This may not just have been a question of gender balance trumping expertise, but the recognition that McGuinness is a shrewd political actor, who has also demonstrated during the Brexit discussions that she is a skilled media operator, this is not surprising given her background as a journalist.
While rumours swirled that there would be a wider shake-up of portfolios, the President appears to have settled on a more modest redistribution. Dombrovskis is a trusted and respected heavyweight in the current Commission, it is unlikely that there will be strong objections to him being given the important trade dossier. As a current MEP, McGuinness is one of their own, it is unlikely that the European Parliament will try to block her nomination.
It was widely anticipated that Ireland would lose the trade portfolio, but financial services and the Capital Markets Union are important sectors to Ireland, which hopes to become an even bigger player in this sector. Many London-based companies are already turning to Dublin as Brexit looms on the horizon. McGuinness will be in charge of directorate general what has yet to decide if the UK’s financial services in different areas will maintain “equivalence”; this is one of the unilateral powers that the European Commission will continue to exercise, whether there is, or isn’t a deal with the UK, by 1 January 2020.
Commentators have pointed to the fact that Ireland now holds three important economic posts. Paschal Donohoe, Ireland’s Finance Minister became President of the Eurogroup in July. Ireland’s former Governor of Ireland’s central bank is now Chief Economist for the European Central Bank in 2019.
Ireland was the eighth largest exporter of financial services (excluding insurance and pension services) in the world in 2017, according to UNCTAD. It has been successful in reducing its non-performing loans from 21% to 6% in 2018 over a four-year period. The sector is an important one for Ireland.