TRADE IS difficult at the best of times – it is all the more an issue when the world has been driven into recession by coronavirus.

This has hit the volume of goods traded this year and there are no signs of this improving quickly, as economies grapple with the reality of reduced consumer spending power as job losses mount. At the same time there is evidence demand is being renationalised, thanks to a drive to respond the the crisis by supporting home production.

That is good news when it sees consumers seeking out Scottish food, but it is a double-edged sword for a country that relies on exporting.

This makes it a bad time for the EU to lose its trade commissioner, Phil Hogan, as a result of his decision to attend a golf event in the west of Ireland that should never have happened. This also saw Ireland’s farm minister forced to resign and further political heads could roll as the government seeks to show that no-one is above the law when it comes to compliance with covid regulations.

Hogan will be a tough act to follow. In a relatively weak commission, he was a heavy hitter. He knew how to do deals and he understood business.

It is no coincidence that his departure, while seen as the inevitable result of a bad decision, was universally regretted across the business community. The danger now is that at a critical time when trade deals are needed the EU has lost the person capable of delivering them.

The task of finding a successor is underway. In typical EU style, what should be a business decision has become tied up with politics. Rumour has it that Ireland has been told that if it wants to retain the trade portfolio it should appoint a woman as commissioner.

This is a prime example of how the EU can get things wrong. This is a crucial appointment and the gender of the person should not matter. It is vital that whoever takes over the brief brings to it hard-nosed business skills.

In a global recession the price of failure would be too high. By allowing gender politics to enter the process, Brussels risks being accused of economic illiteracy in basing a key decision on the wrong criteria.

Ironically, just a week before Hogan made his bad decision over a golf event, he had concluded a trade deal that augured well for the future. This was with the US and it was a small step towards an eventual transatlantic agreement based around freer trade. Both sides confirmed this was their long term aim.

This must have set some alarm bells ringing in London. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is desperate for a trade deal with the US. Given a choice, he would put that ahead of a deal with the EU-27, despite there being no economic logic to such an approach.

In this dream deal, he is being encourage by Donald Trump, mainly because it suits his agenda to distance the UK from the EU. However, the deal Hogan delivered before his demise was about reality rather than politics.

The deal reduced, or eliminated a number of industrial tariffs. There is little in it for agriculture, but it is the direction of travel that is important. Both sides talked about their commitment to freer trade. This sums up the challenge of numbers the UK faces.

For the US, there are business advantages in any deal with the EU. It has 500m potential consumers against just 60m in the UK. That lack of numbers will always make the UK a less attractive prospect.

It boils down to an either/or option most countries will follow the numbers. This is why the UK is likely to find it a lot tougher to make trade deal than many bullish pro-Brexit cabinet ministers believe.

Most countries around the world see the distinction between trade and politics. That is something Hogan understood and he played the numbers cards to convince countries free trade was a sensible basis for dealing with the EU.

This reflected someone who learned their business skills in Ireland’s livestock markets. That will be missed in the EU.

But it is a skill that does not appear to exist in the UK as it embarks on the long road to forging post-Brexit trade arrangements in the face of the worst recession the world has ever seen.