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New E.U. Trade Chief on a Quest to Fix Relations With U.S.

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Europe’s new trade commissioner arrived in Washington on Monday on a mission to prevent the Trump administration from ruining the European economy.

But with trans-Atlantic relations already at a low point, Phil Hogan, a blunt-talking, physically imposing Irishman, will probably do well if he can simply prevent things from going any further downhill.

As Mr. Hogan begins a four-day visit, his first as trade commissioner, the list of reasons for the United States and Europe to be angry at each other is long and getting longer.

The United States, upset at France’s plans to tax technology companies, is threatening tariffs that would double the price of imported French wine. The European Union accuses the administration of paralyzing the system for resolving trade disputes, ushering in an era of conflict and disorder.

Punishing tariffs on European steel and aluminum remain in place. The administration continues to dangle the threat of duties on European cars, which would be economically devastating for the Continent. Europeans are deeply alarmed by what they regard as the president’s recklessness in the Middle East.

“The current state of E.U.-U.S. relations isn’t good and I don’t think it’s likely to get better anytime soon,” said Peter Chase, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels.

Mr. Hogan brings a different set of skills than Cecilia Malmstrom, whom he succeeded as the European Union’s top trade official at the beginning of December. Some in Brussels think his rawer style will make him a better match for the current occupant of the White House.

Mr. Hogan recently said, for example, that by leaving the European Union, the British people were trading in a Rolls-Royce for a used sedan. The statement was seen as particularly cheeky coming from an Irishman who will also be responsible for negotiating a trade deal with Britain as part of its withdrawal from the European Union, a herculean task.

“He is more direct,” said Luisa Santos, the director for international relations at BusinessEurope, an industry group. Gender may also play a role, Ms. Santos said. There is a widespread perception in Washington and Brussels that Trump officials were not comfortable with Ms. Malmstrom, an assertive Swede.

“The fact that he is a man” works in Mr. Hogan’s favor, Ms. Santos said. “He is probably the right person for this moment.”

But it’s unclear whether Mr. Hogan, who declined requests for an interview, will have any more success than Ms. Malmstrom at repairing the largest trade partnership in the world, worth $1 trillion a year.

His agenda includes meetings with Robert Lighthizer, the United States trade representative; Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary; and Wilbur Ross, the secretary of commerce. To varying degrees, all support the president’s hard line on trade relations.

A 6-foot-5 former farmer from Kilkenny in southern Ireland, Mr. Hogan spent much of his political career in the trenches of Irish domestic politics, helping to build the centrist Fine Gael party into Ireland’s strongest bloc. He was Fine Gael’s director of organization in the early 2000s, and later head of the party’s national election campaign.

Credit…John Thys/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Phil knew every candidate, he knew every constituency,” said Ciaran Conlon, a former Fine Gael spokesman who is now director of public policy for Microsoft in Ireland.

Mr. Hogan’s feel for retail politics served him well, Mr. Conlon said, when he later became the European commissioner responsible for agriculture, the job he held until December.

Mr. Hogan organized town meetings with farmers around Europe, and attended funerals of prominent farm leaders. His approach helped to combat the European Commission’s reputation for aloofness.

“Politics is about personal relationships and Phil understands that,” Mr. Conlon said.

As agriculture commissioner, Mr. Hogan was often involved in trade talks, and gained a reputation for being canny and well prepared. Farm products are typically the most politically sensitive component of trade deals. A plan to reach a more comprehensive trans-Atlantic trade deal early on in Mr. Trump’s tenure fell apart over disagreements about how to address agriculture.

“He’s a very, very good negotiator,” said Sorin Moisa, a former member of the European Parliament from Romania and former European trade official.

Ms. Malmstrom managed to prevent the president from carrying through on a threat to penalize European car imports, which would be devastating for the Continent’s economy.

But little remains of the optimism that followed a meeting in July 2018 between Mr. Trump and Jean-Claude Juncker, then the president of the European Commission.

The two men said they would work to reduce tariffs to zero and eliminate regulations that hinder trans-Atlantic trade. The European Union and the United States are each other’s largest trading partners, and there is general agreement that both sides would benefit from lower trade barriers.

Progress has been modest at best. In July, they agreed to recognize each other’s inspections of factories that produce pharmaceuticals. The agreement eliminates the need for duplicate inspections and should cut the cost of drug production.

But in most other ways, the relationship has only turned more sour.

The Europeans accuse the United States of crippling the World Trade Organization by blocking appointments of new members to a crucial panel that hears appeals in trade disputes. The panel effectively ceased to function in December when several members’ terms expired.

Without a system to enforce trade rules, Mr. Hogan told members of the European Parliament last year, “Well, then, there isn’t any point in having agreements.”

“We have asked the U.S. to engage with us and they have refused to do so,” he said.

As the norms that have governed world trade crumble, countries are responding to disputes with tit-for-tat retaliation and displays of power.

After France said it would impose a so-called digital tax on technology companies — a measure clearly aimed at Silicon Valley — the United States threatened 100 percent tariffs on French wine, handbags, cookware and other products.

“When sides take unilateral actions that harm the other side, that are inconsistent with international norms, the other side has a right to be angry,” said Clete Willems, a partner at the law firm Akin Gump who was an economic adviser in the White House until last year. “That’s where we are with the E.U. now.”

There is plenty of ire to go around. The Europeans are angry at the United States for imposing sanctions on companies helping to build the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany.

Both sides are mad about what they say are illegal subsidies to their flagship aircraft manufacturers. The United States is putting $7.5 billion in tariffs on European products in retaliation for illegal aid to Airbus, and the Europeans are expected to retaliate in kind for what they say are illegal subsidies to Boeing.

Mr. Hogan will try to convince his American counterparts that Europe and the United States should work together to rein in China, in part by fixing the W. T.O. He also plans meetings on Capitol Hill, where his Irish-ness is likely to play well.

Nobody is expecting a major breakthrough, but there is some hope that the trip could signal the start of a gradual improvement in the trade relationship.

“I don’t think either side wants this to go back into a deep hole again and spiral into negativity,” said Susan Danger, chief executive of the American Chamber of Commerce to the European Union. “Both sides want to kick off in a positive way.”

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.