Trade commissioner Mandelson resigns

03.10.08 @ 17:53

  1. By Leigh Phillips

BRUSSELS - In a surprise move, European Union trade commissioner Peter Mandelson is to leave his position with the EU's executive and take up the position of secretary of state for business in UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown's reshuffled cabinet.

  • Commissioner Mandelson is to rejoin the UK cabinet (Photo: European Community, 2006)

Mr Mandelson, a longtime antagonist of Mr Brown's faction within the UK Labour Party, has been asked to return to London to help the prime minister grapple with the current financial crisis.

Having twice resigned from the UK government under the cloud of corruption allegations, Mr Mandelson is reportedly to be offered a peerage so he may sit at the cabinet table.

From commissioner to peer

The leader of the House of Lords, Cathy Ashton, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, is to replace Mr Mandelson as the UK's commissioner.

Commission president Barroso has decided to attribute the trade portfolio to Ms Ashton, allowing the UK to maintain its dossier, a move the commission president did not make following the resignation of former justice and home affairs commissioner Franco Frattini, after he resigned in May, to take up the position of foreign minister in Silvio Berlusconi's new government.

Then, Mr Barroso offered the justice portfolio to French commissioner Jacques Barrot, and gave transport to the incoming Italian commissioner, Antonio Tajani.

Mr Brown picked a peer to avoid a by-election at time when the prime minister's party is fairing poorly in the polls.

Cheers and tears

The commissioner's departure left European business representatives in Brussels saddened to see such a champion of their interests move on.

Development NGOs and fair trade campaigners, meanwhile, who have repeatedly criticised Mr Mandelson's positions, cheered the development.

"Considering his 'interesting' sojourn in the UK government in the past, I was surprised to see the announcement that he would be returning," said Stuart Newman, an advisor with the Brussels-based Foreign Trade Association, an alliance of national trade associations promoting liberalisation of markets.

"However, I also feel that his departure from the EU Trade Commissioner's post will be a loss for the supporters of free trade such as the many importers and retailers throughout Europe," he added.

"I only hope that he can continue his non-protectionist views in his new position as secretary of state for business."

Julian Oram, head of policy at the World Development Movement, a UK development charity, welcomed Mr Mandelson's departure.

"Peter Mandelson's reign in Brussels as Trade Commissioner has been characterised by a truly aggressive approach to trade with developing countries, and a determination to prioritise the interests of European big business at all costs," she said.

"Whether at the World Trade Organisation, or in trade negotiations with countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, he has lectured and arguably bullied developing countries to accept unfair trade deals, no matter the cost to subsistence farmers and manufacturing jobs locally."

The charity said they hoped the new commissioner will "bring a breath of fresh air to EU policy.

"It is imperative that DG Trade overhauls its thinking and places sustainable development, rather than the interests of European multinationals, at its heart," Ms Oram added.

Oxfam, the international development NGO, sharply criticised the outgoing commissioner, as well, with Luis Morago, head of the group;s Brussels office, saying: "Commissioner Mandelson, unfortunately, failed to ensure that the EU put development ahead of self-interest in its trading relations with its former colonies ... The commission has sought many concessions from African, Caribbean and Pacific [ACP] countries likely to undermine their prospects for economic development."

The group called "on Ashton to take a new approach to EU trade policies, including rethinking the partnership agreements between the European Union and the ACP countries, by placing development at the heart of the negotiations."

Although Ms Ashton's views on trade are not yet widely know, judging from a July 2008 House of Lords discussion on WTO negotiations, it appears she will not differ significantly from Mr Mandelson's general framework.

During the debate, Ms Ashton said: "With regard to the Doha round, my money is on commissioner Mandelson.

"It is important that we continue to put pressure on trying to reach agreement."

'Didn't achieve much'

Brid Brennan, a trade analyst with the Transnational Institute, a Netherlands-based centre-left think-tank, wondered whether his failure to push through a series of trade agreements with the developing world and the collapse of the Doha Round of World Trade Organisation negotiations had any bearing on his resignation.

"Apart from some initials from governments such as Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Cameroon - and this still didn't mean these governments intended to approve the European Partnership Agreements [the contentious EU trade agreements with ACP nations]," she said, "Mandelson's way of negotiating didn't achieve much other than provoking increased apprehension and protests in Latin America and Africa."