EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan has resigned from his post following a furore over apparent violations of Covid-19 guidelines in his native Ireland.
Mr Hogan occupies one of Brussels’s most powerful positions at a key moment for trade talks with both the US and China. He tendered his resignation on Wednesday night to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. Ms von der Leyen said she respected Mr Hogan’s decision, calling him a “valuable and respected member of the college”.
In a statement on Wednesday evening, Mr Hogan said: “It was becoming increasingly clear that the controversy concerning my recent visit to Ireland was becoming a distraction from my work as an EU commissioner and would undermine my work in the key months ahead.”
The trade commissioner has, since the end of last week, been fighting to defend his conduct after he attended a dinner in County Galway that breached restrictions. The clamour for him to stand down grew after it emerged that he had made a number of visits during the period to County Kildare, where he has a temporary residence and which was subject to a local lockdown.
In a report requested by Ms von der Leyen, Mr Hogan this week laid out details of his attendance at the dinner, organised by the parliamentary golf society, and his other movements around the country from the end of July until last week.
The dinner appeared to violate a government ban on events in hotel restaurants, prompting a government minister to quit. Micheál Martin, prime minister, and Leo Varadkar, deputy premier, called on Mr Hogan over the weekend to consider his position.
On Tuesday they rejected his claims in his report to Ms von der Leyen that he had complied fully with health guidelines.
As pressure mounted on the commissioner on Wednesday, Mr Martin said he had undermined public confidence in the guidelines by breaching them.
Not only was Mr Hogan attacked for attending the golf dinner and for travelling from Kildare, he was criticised for cutting short a mandatory 14-day quarantine following his arrival in Ireland from Belgium when he tested negative for Covid-19. The commissioner said that was allowed under the rules but the government said it was not.
Mr Martin told reporters: “One of the big challenges here, and difficulties, has been the changing narrative around the commissioner’s movements and so on and the degree to which he breached or didn’t breach guidelines.”
He went on: “And to be very clear, he was not correct yesterday [on Tuesday] in his assertions around having taken a test, that that absolved you from having to restrict your movements. It didn’t. You have to continue to restrict your movements for 14 days.”
Dublin acknowledged Mr Hogan’s exit in a statement signed by the leaders of the three-party coalition — Mr Martin, Mr Varadkar and Green leader Eamon Ryan. “While this must have been a difficult decision for him personally, we believe that it is the correct course of action given the circumstances of the past week,” they said. “We all have a responsibility to support and adhere to public health guidelines and regulations.”
Dublin has yet to signal whom it will nominate as Mr Hogan’s replacement and government insiders said the matter had not yet been formally discussed at the top level.
But EU officials said that names of potential contenders were already circulating in Brussels. Among them were that of the European Parliament’s first vice-president, Mairéad McGuinness, who, like Mr Hogan, is a Fine Gael politician. That assumes that Mr Martin’s Fianna Fail party, which has more seats in the Irish parliament, would acquiesce.
Another name in circulation is that of Simon Coveney, the foreign minister, but he also is in Fine Gael and none of the three government parties would welcome a by-election so soon into the tenure of a coalition that has been beset by turmoil since taking office in late June.
EU diplomats also mooted the idea that Ireland could turn to a technocrat, such as Catherine Day, a former secretary-general of the European Commission, or David O’Sullivan, a former EU ambassador to the US who has also served as the EU’s top trade official.
Mr Hogan’s departure — just nine months into a five-year mandate — decapitates EU trade strategy at a critical moment.
Brussels is desperate to build on the recent calming of transatlantic trade relations that the Irishman had been pivotal in orchestrating — Washington and the EU last week agreed on their first package of reciprocal tariff cuts in 20 years.
The hope in EU policymaking circles had been that Mr Hogan could ride that wave and achieve a lasting settlement in the longstanding spat between Brussels and Washington over aircraft subsidies, with the World Trade Organization set to rule next month on permitted EU retaliation against aid given to Boeing.
It will now fall to Ms von der Leyen to decide who should, at least temporarily, pick up that baton. While Ireland will need to nominate a new commissioner to replace Mr Hogan, Ms von der Leyen will have free rein to give the trade job to one of her existing cohort of commissioners rather than to the replacement sent by Dublin, who in theory could be handed a different portfolio.
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Relations with the US in the run-up to November’s presidential election were one of several simmering issues in Mr Hogan’s in-tray. Lengthy EU negotiations with China are in a pivotal phase, with Brussels planning to decide by around the end of the year on whether enough progress has been made to justify continuing. The investment treaty being discussed with Beijing is one of the main irons the EU has in the fire to address concerns about unfair commercial practices.
Mr Hogan was also in the inner EU circle when it came to trade talks with Britain that will face their moment of truth in the coming weeks.
The Irishman’s short time as trade commissioner began with real promise as he increased contacts with the US. But his tenure entered choppier waters earlier this year as the pandemic fuelled protectionist sentiment and hobbled the international trade agenda.
Mr Hogan was dealt a personal blow in the spring after he publicly flirted with the idea of entering the race to become the next head of the WTO only to discover that EU governments were lukewarm about his candidacy.