After Hogan resignation, EU and Ireland await new trade commissioner

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announcing Phil Hogan’s resignation as trade commissioner.
Monday, August 31, 2020

Update: On Friday, the Irish government put forward two candidates for the position of commissioner vacated by Hogan – Mairead McGuinness, the First Vice President of the European Parliament, and Andrew McDowell, former Vice President of the European Investment Bank. Yesterday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen interviewed both candidates and will recommend one for consideration by the European Parliament. Simon Coveney, the foreign minister and defense minister, and former trade minister with responsibility for Brexit, reportedly withdrew from consideration when he concluded that, if appointed, he wouldn’t receive trade or some other equally-important Brexit-related portfolio. It’s expected that von der Leyen will select McGuinness but will ask Dombrovskis to continue as trade commissioner in addition to his other responsibilities as Executive Vice President of the Commission.

While the EU-UK negotiation continued behind the scene last week, the spotlight in the EU was focused elsewhere—on a dinner of the Irish parliamentary golf society that took place August 19 at a hotel in Clifden in County Galway. Among those attending was Phil Hogan, the EU commissioner responsible for trade. Hogan had been a Fine Gael member of the Teachta Dála, the lower chamber of the parliament, for 25 years, during which he served as a minister in several governments, before being appointed in 2014 to the European Commission with responsibility for agriculture and rural development. He was reappointed last year and given the important trade portfolio by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Last Wednesday, after resisting for several days calls to resign because he had disregarded Irish regulations pertaining to Covid-19 during a three-week stay in Ireland earlier this month, he offered, and von der Leyen accepted, his resignation. For a Commission in the midst of a difficult negotiation with the UK and involved also in tough negotiations with the U.S. and China, the resignation could not have come at a worse moment. 

The dinner took place the day after Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Micheál Martin announced the government had approved more restrictive measures in the wake of an accelerating increase in the rate of Covid-19 infections in the country. The EU’s European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) reports each day the cumulative number of new Covid-19 cases in the past 14 days per 100,000 population for the EU member states and many others as well. As of July 1, the cumulative number of new cases in Ireland in the previous 14 days per 100,000 was 2.8. By July 15, the number had increased to 4.0, by July 31 it had increased to 6.7, and by August 15 the number had almost tripled to 19. On August 18, the day the government announced the new measures and the day before the dinner, it had reached 22.5. That was still only one-tenth the cumulative number of new cases in the previous 14 days per 100,000 in the US (220.2) and was much lower than the 14-day cumulative number of new cases per 100,000 in Spain (130.8), Belgium (69,9) and France (45.4). But it was more than the rate of new cases in Germany (17.9) and the UK (20.4), more than twice the rate of new cases in Italy (10.0), and most importantly, of course, was five-to-six times the number registered in early July. With Health Minister Stephen Donnelly warning, “We are at a tipping point,” on August 18 Martin announced the government was reducing the maximum number of people attending an outside event from 200 to 15 and the maximum number attending an indoor gathering from 50 to six, and was asking people over 70 to stay at home as much as possible and those working to do so at home and avoid public transportation if possible.    

The Oireachtas (Parliament) Golf Society’s celebration of its 50th anniversary took place at the Station House Hotel in Clifden despite a public health advice that “no formal or informal events or parties should be organized in these premises.” The gathering was planned to include 82 people, which exceeded the previous 50-person limit for indoor gatherings, to say nothing of the six-person limit announced on August 18. The organizers claimed that by separating the 82 people into two groups with a partition the dinner would not violate the 50-person rule. News of the dinner spread quickly and, as it did, there were calls for those with public responsibilities who attended to resign. Two days later, Dara Calleary, the Minister for Agriculture, apologized and resigned, as did Senator Jerry Buttimer, the deputy chair of the Seanad (Senate).

There were calls for Hogan to resign as well but he resisted, saying in a statement on Twitter that he had attended “on the clear understanding that the organisers and the hotel concerned had been assured [by the Hotels’ Federation] that the arrangements put in place would be in compliance with the government’s guidelines.” He also said, “Prior to the event, I had complied fully with the government’s quarantine requirements, having been in Ireland since late July.” The next day, Martin and former Taoiseach and current Tánaiste (deputy head of government) Leo Varadkar asked him to “consider his position.” Last Sunday he issued a “fulsome and profound apology” for attending the dinner, saying, “I acknowledge that the issue is far bigger than compliance with rules and regulations and adherence to legalities and procedures. All of us must display solidarity.” But he continued to say he would not resign. He spoke with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and assured her that he had complied with all Covid-19-related rules and regulations.

But in fact he had not complied with all of the rules and regulations. On July 23, the government issued a “Green List” of ten countries from which arriving travelers would not be required to restrict their movements for 14 days. Those arriving from a country not on the list were required to restrict their movements for 14 days, not go to work, use public transport, visit others, go to shops and pharmacies unless it was absolutely essential, and meet face-to-face with older people. Hogan arrived from Belgium on July 31 and went to his temporary residence in County Kildare. Belgium obviously, given its high rate of infection, is not on the “Green List,” meaning he was required to restrict his movements for 14 days. He was admitted to a Dublin hospital on August 5 for a medical procedure and, while there, was tested for Covid-19. The test was negative and he was discharged the next day and returned to his temporary residence. He later claimed he didn’t need to restrict his movements, given the negative test. The Irish Department of Health said a negative test didn’t shorten the 14-day requirement.

On August 7, three counties, one of which was Kildare, instituted county-wide lockdowns that prohibited those living in the county from leaving and those living outside the county from entering. Before the travel restriction took effect, Hogan traveled from Kildare to Kilkenny in the south. He then traveled to Dublin, then to Limerick in the southwest, then back to Kilkenny and back to Kildare. On August 17, he was stopped by the police for using his mobile phone while driving in Kildare, then drove from Kildare to Galway for the dinner, then back to Kildare, and then to the airport to return to Brussels on August 22, all of which meant he violated the Kildare lockdown rules several times.

When the reports of Hogan’s attendance at the dinner reached the Commission, it initially stood behind him. On August 21, the spokeswoman for von der Leyen, reiterating what Hogan had said in his tweets, said, “Upon his return from Brussels to Ireland for the summer holidays, he had self-isolated for 14 days in accordance with the local regulations in Ireland. This is an example of how seriously he takes rules and regulations on Covid-19.” And again reiterating what he had said in his tweets, she said, “he attended the event organized by the Irish Parliamentary Golf Society in good faith, on the clear understanding that the organizers and the hotel concerned had been assured by the Irish Hotels’ Federation the arrangements proposed to be put in place would be in compliance with the Government’s guidelines.”

But last Monday, the spokeswoman said that, after Hogan had given von der Leyen an account of his movements in Ireland, she had gone back to him for clarifications. “Details are important and she wishes to have them.” Last Tuesday, he gave her a four-page memorandum, subsequently posted on the Commission site, on his visit to Ireland that included a detailed listing of his travels in the country. Also on Tuesday, the leaders of the three parties that currently govern Ireland – Martin of Fianna Fáil, Varadkar of Fine Gael, and Eamon Ryan of the Green Party – issued a joint statement in which they said Hogan’s “delayed and hesitant release of information has undermined public confidence…..Government guidelines clearly required him to restrict his movements for 14 days. He should also have limited his movements to and from Kildare for essential travel only, and he should not have attended the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner.”

Last Wednesday, the Commission spokeswoman said von der Leyen was studying the report Hogan had given her and was expected to make a decision in regard to his future soon. Speaking the same day, Martin said he wouldn’t comment on whether Hogan should resign, saying that was a matter for von der Leyen to decide. But he left little doubt about what he thought about Hogan’s disregard of the government’s guidelines: “In the context of attending the dinner, in the context of the various other breaches, I think he’s undermined the whole approach to public health in Ireland.” He said the government had made the Irish public’s anger known to the Commission.

The signals from both the Irish government and the Commission were clear and that evening Hogan submitted his resignation to von der Leyen. The next morning she issued a statement announcing his resignation and thanking him for his service, while emphasizing that she expects the commissioners to be particularly vigilant about complying with applicable national or regional rules or recommendations. Noting that it was now up to the Irish government to present suitable candidates for a new commissioner, she said she will invite the government to propose a woman and a man. In the meantime, she said Commission Executive Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis will assume, on an interim basis, responsibility for trade and she will decide on the final allocation of portfolios at a later stage.

Ireland is a small country but there’s no shortage of qualified candidates for the Commission. One obvious candidate is Simon Coveney, the deputy leader of Fine Gael, former Tánaiste and foreign minister in 2017-20 and current minister for defence. While not ruling it out, today he said he would need a good reason to move from what he is now doing and would have to be convinced he “would add significant value to our chances of increasing our profile within the Commission.” Another strong candidate is Mairead McGuinness, also a member of Fine Gael, a member of the European Parliament since 2004 and the First Vice President of the Parliament. A third is Frances Fitzgerald, also a member of Fine Gael and, like McGuinness, an MEP. Prior to her election to the European Parliament last year, she was a Teachta Dála for 18 years and a Senator for four years, held several ministerial positions in 2011-17, and served as Tánaiste in 2016-17. Other possible candidates include David O’Sullivan, who served as Director-General of Trade in 2005-10, Chief Operating Officer of the European External Action Service in 2010-14, and EU ambassador to the U.S. in 2014-19, and Catherine Day, who served as Director-General of Environment in 2002-05 and Secretary-General of the Commission in 2005-15. 

Ireland hopes its new commissioner will retain responsibility for trade, largely because of the important role the trade commissioner will play in shaping the future relationship between Ireland and the UK, regardless of whether the EU and UK reach an agreement on their future relationship that would take effect when the UK leaves the Single Market and Customs Union at midnight on December 31. But von der Leyen has made it clear that Ireland has no prior claim to trade and she intends to appoint the best candidate among all of the commissioners, including the new Irish commissioner. Ireland and the EU wait anxiously to find out who that will be.

David R. Cameron is a professor of political science and director of the European Union Studies Program at the MacMillan Center.