The appointment of Phil Hogan to the role of EU trade commissioner for the next five years will see him go up against the UK’s negotiators in talks – if the Brexit process gets that far.
Mr Hogan earlier this year rubbished the UK government’s “global Britain” plan, warning that Britain would become a “medium-sized” nation with reduced bargaining power.
Just last month he accused “unelected” prime minister Boris Johnson of putting “the best interests of the Tory party ahead of the best interests of the UK”.
During Brexit talks he has developed a reputation as the Commission’s attack dog: In June last year he said the tide was going out on the “high priests of Brexit”, suggesting the British public were finally seeing through the “deception and lies” of politicians like Michael Gove and Nigel Farage, who he named.
Mr Hogan was confirmed as being given the Trade portfolio by incoming Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday afternoon at a press conference in Brussels, where she unveiled her new cabinet. The whole Commission will have to be confirmed by the European Parliament following a series of hearings.
EU sources told Irish public broadcaster RTE that the job was as “one of the most important economic portfolios in the next commission, coming at a very important time for the EU and Ireland”.
Ms Von der Leyen said of Mr Hogan: "He is known as a hard and a fair negotiator. He will be bring his experience to the new Commission in the trade portfolio."
The bloc has said it will not open trade negotiations with the UK until the issues in the withdrawal agreement – including the Irish border and divorce bill payments – are dealt with to its satisfaction.
Mr Hogan, who was agriculture commissioner in Jean-Claude Juncker’s administration, will work closely with Sabine Weyand – the former deputy of Michel Barnier who is known in Brussels as the brains behind the withdrawal agreement. She was promoted to director general at the Commission’s trade department earlier this year.
Ireland’s EU commissioner gave a taste of his views about a future UK-EU trade agreement in a speech in April.
He warned that there were “stubborn facts that over-shadow a rosy picture” painted by advocates of a “Global Britain”.
“Global Britain will mean for the United Kingdom a return to medium-sized nation status.Yes it will regain the sovereignty to seek and strike agreements where it wants but with reduced bargaining power, reduced security of its markets and supply chains, and a friction and cost added to each trade shipment to the EU, its biggest trade partner,” he said.
Noting the difficulties of negotiating deal with the US, the likely impact on the UK balance of payments, and the difficulty of negotiating agreements with the Commonwealth and rolling over old EU trade deals, he added: “Stepping into Global Britain is stepping into a difficult world. And there will be a huge gap between hope and experience.”