New E.U. Trade Chief Will Lead Prickly Talks With China. And U.K. And U.S.

By Monika Pronczuk and Jack Ewing

Valdis Dombrovskis, a former prime minister of Latvia, was picked to take over at a particularly tense time. The previous office holder quit after claims he had flouted coronavirus rules.

The nomination of Valdis Dombrovskis comes at a busy time for Brussels, with Brexit negotiations at a critical juncture and the European Union’s recovery fund attracting scrutiny.
The nomination of Valdis Dombrovskis comes at a busy time for Brussels, with Brexit negotiations at a critical juncture and the European Union’s recovery fund attracting scrutiny.Credit...Pool photo by Virginia Mayo

By Monika Pronczuk and

BRUSSELS — The European Commission on Tuesday named Valdis Dombrovskis, a former Latvian prime minister and senior European Union official, as its new trade chief in a reshuffle following the resignation of the Irish commissioner Phil Hogan last month.

The shuffling upsets staid Brussels politics at a particularly tense time — as Brexit negotiations sputter and as a debate around the European Union’s recovery fund hangs in the air — but was unavoidable after Mr. Hogan resigned in August over criticism that he had violated coronavirus rules.

Mr. Dombrovskis, whose gentle manner will be a departure in style from Mr. Hogan’s more blunt-talking persona, will be tasked with handling difficult trade talks with the bloc’s biggest partners and competitors: China, Britain in a post-Brexit world, and the United States. But despite their stylistic differences, experts say that they expect Mr. Dombrovskis, who has been a vice president in the European Commission focusing on the economy, to follow through on the policies Mr. Hogan set out in those negotiations.

The reshuffle was announced by Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, in a brief statement on Tuesday.

ImagePhil Hogan and the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, in Brussels in January. Mr. Hogan was the European Union’s trade chief for 10 months.
Phil Hogan and the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, in Brussels in January. Mr. Hogan was the European Union’s trade chief for 10 months.Credit...Virginia Mayo/Associated Press

Trade relations between the United States and Europe improved slightly during Mr. Hogan’s 10-month tenure, but remain tense. His successor, Mr. Dombrovskis, will have to deal with an array of outstanding issues, including a dispute about aircraft subsidies and a Trump administration blockade that has crippled the ability of the World Trade Organization to resolve disputes.

With his direct manner and lengthy political experience in Ireland, Mr. Hogan seemed able to deal with the Trump administration’s confrontational approach. The two sides put angry rhetoric aside during Mr. Hogan’s watch, and Mr. Trump did not follow through on threats to penalize European auto imports.

While the two sides made modest progress in reducing trade barriers, a broad agreement had remained elusive, and the Trump administration continues to impose 25 percent tariffs on European steel. The United States and Europe trade goods and services worth $1 trillion a year, and economists agree that more open trade would help growth on both sides of the Atlantic.

Updated September 4, 2020

    • In the beginning, the coronavirus seemed like it was primarily a respiratory illness — many patients had fever and chills, were weak and tired, and coughed a lot, though some people don’t show many symptoms at all. Those who seemed sickest had pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome and received supplemental oxygen. By now, doctors have identified many more symptoms and syndromes. In April, the C.D.C. added to the list of early signs sore throat, fever, chills and muscle aches. Gastrointestinal upset, such as diarrhea and nausea, has also been observed. Another telltale sign of infection may be a sudden, profound diminution of one’s sense of smell and taste. Teenagers and young adults in some cases have developed painful red and purple lesions on their fingers and toes — nicknamed “Covid toe” — but few other serious symptoms.
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    • The coronavirus spreads primarily through droplets from your mouth and nose, especially when you cough or sneeze. The C.D.C., one of the organizations using that measure, bases its recommendation of six feet on the idea that most large droplets that people expel when they cough or sneeze will fall to the ground within six feet. But six feet has never been a magic number that guarantees complete protection. Sneezes, for instance, can launch droplets a lot farther than six feet, according to a recent study. It's a rule of thumb: You should be safest standing six feet apart outside, especially when it's windy. But keep a mask on at all times, even when you think you’re far enough apart.
    • As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.

The portfolio given to Mr. Dombrovskis will elevate his role in European economic policymaking, experts said, building on the important role he had already played.

“Dombrovskis was involved in all the commission’s key internal economic policies,” Mr. Rahman of Eurasia Group said. “Given the strategic importance of trade, he will arguably now be the most powerful economic voice within the European Commission.”

Mr. Hogan’s vacated role as the European commissioner for Ireland will go to Mairead McGuinness, Ms. von der Leyen also announced on Tuesday. Ms. McGuinness is a senior European parliamentarian proposed by Dublin and she will be responsible for financial services, a slice of the wide-ranging economy portfolio previously held by Mr. Dombrovskis.

The appointments of Ms. McGuinness and Mr. Dombrovskis will need to be formally approved by the European Parliament and by the European Union’s national governments before they can take office, but neither selection is expected to face resistance.