Saturday

19th Sep 2020

EU trade chief ignores call to resign in corona-fiasco

  • Phil Hogan (l) said he "respected" the Irish government, but refused to comply (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

EU trade chief Phil Hogan has ignored his national government's appeal to resign for flouting anti-coronavirus rules.

The Irish politician, who has been an EU commissioner since 2014, instead tried to weather the storm by issuing a profuse apology on Sunday (23 August).

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"I wish to apologise fully and unreservedly," he said.

"I want, in particular, to apologise to the wonderful healthcare workers ... I am profoundly sorry," he added.

"I am extremely sorry ... I thus offer this fulsome and profound apology," he also said.

Hogan's statement came after he attended a golf-club dinner, along with 81 others, in Ireland last Wednesday - one day after the Irish government said that no more than six people should gather indoors due to rising coronavirus infections.

Two Irish ministers who also went to the dinner have already resigned.

And the Irish prime minister and foreign minister, who come from the same political party as Hogan, the centre-right Fianna Gael, said in a statement on Saturday that Hogan should give up his €270,000 a year EU post as well.

"The Taoiseach [prime minister] and the Tánaiste [foreign minister] did speak with the commissioner [Hogan] today and asked him to consider his position," the Irish government said in a statement on Saturday.

Hogan's outpouring of regret came after the European Commission had tried to quash the affair.

Hogan had attended the dinner in "good faith" and on the "clear understanding" that it was in line with Irish rules, an EU spokesperson said on Friday, despite the glaring discrepancy between the 82 golf-dinner guests and the Irish six-person rule.

Only the EU commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, and not the Irish government, has the authority to force Hogan out.

And Hogan, for his part, indicated that he had von der Leyen's support to stay on, saying, on Sunday, that he had been "reporting" to her on the incident, even as he ignored the Irish government's appeal to step down.

As for von der Leyen, her spokesperson told Irish broadcaster RTÉ, the same day, that: "She requested commissioner Hogan to provide a full report with details of the event. It is important that facts are established in detail to carefully assess the situation".

But for others, the fiasco risked making both the Irish and the EU political elite look callous and aloof in the eyes of ordinary people.

"It [Hogan's dinner] is an action that risks undermining public confidence in Covid-19 regulations. Many ordinary families have made considerable sacrifices to curb the increase of Covid-19 cases," Chris MacManus, an MEP from Ireland's nationalist Sinn Féin party, told Irish media over the weekend.

It would be "very, very alarming" if Hogan stayed on, Sinn Féin party leader Mary Lou McDonald also said.

The Irish police is currently investigating the golf-club event, which was also attended by three Irish senators and two judges.

And the Irish parliament is being recalled from its summer holiday to discuss what happened.

But for some in the Irish establishment, Hogan might be too valuable for Dublin to lose because of his trade portfolio in the EU commission - a post which could see him influence post-Brexit Irish-UK trade relations.

It would be against the national interest for Hogan to resign because his replacement might not get the EU trade job once again, Jim O'Callaghan, an MP from the opposition centre-right Fianna Fáil party, said.

"The downside if he [Hogan] goes? Replacing a trade commissioner and many from his cabinet at this crucial juncture in EU-Brexit negotiations would strengthen the UK's hand," Green MEP Ciarán Cuffe added, referring to limping EU talks on how to trade with Britain after January next year, when a Brexit transition period expires.

Phone gaffe

Hogan, last week, won kudos for securing a mini-trade deal with the US.

The EU is to drop tariffs on US lobster imports in return for US relief on cigarette lighters, crystal goods, and other items, under the accord.

"We intend for this ... to mark just the beginning of a process that will lead to additional agreements that create more free, fair, and reciprocal transatlantic trade," US trade representative Robert Lighthizer and Hogan said.

But the 60-year old Irishman also looked bad because he was stopped by Irish police, last Monday, for using his mobile phone while driving, RTÉ reported.

And he already harmed his standing earlier this year, when he tried and failed to ditch his EU post in favour of a top job at the World Trade Organisation in Geneva instead.

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