Dismissal of EU Trade Chief Sets Awkward Precedent for Bloc
Phil Hogan, former trade commissioner of the European Union, pauses during a trade committee debate in the European Parliament’s Jozsef Antall building in Brussels, Belgium. (Photographer: Olivier Matthys/Bloomberg)

Dismissal of EU Trade Chief Sets Awkward Precedent for Bloc

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen headed off a brewing political storm by accepting her top trade official’s resignation, and in the process she may have set a dangerous precedent by letting national political concerns affect the institution.

European Union Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan had sought backing from his boss to weather the growing criticism in his native Ireland over his attendance at a golf event that breached pandemic guidelines, but von der Leyen saw that as politically untenable, according to an official with knowledge of the matter.

Irish government officials, including Prime Minister Micheal Martin and his deputy Leo Varadkar, had reprimanded Hogan and asked him to “consider his position.” The public censure tested the tightly held premise in Brussels that the commission is above political controversies in a member country.

The commission, whose leadership team is made up of one appointee from each EU nation, proposes and enforces European laws, monitors national economies, negotiates trade deals, runs a diplomatic service and administers the bloc’s 150 billion-euro ($177 billion) annual budget.

Golf Society

The departure of Hogan, a former Irish environment minister, from one of the EU’s most powerful positions stemmed in large part from the domestic political needs of Ireland’s new and fractious ruling coalition. Amid a surge in coronavirus cases, the three-party government has spent a week clamoring for acts of contrition by high-profile guests at the controversial Aug. 19 dinner sponsored by the Irish parliament’s golf society.

The commission has traditionally enjoyed a degree of independence from national politics similar to that long bestowed on the western world’s central banks. The idea, widely accepted in EU capitals big and small, is that the interests of the bloc as a whole are best served by shielding its policy-making engine from the ups and downs of domestic political cycles.

With the current commission only recently taking office, losing such a key figure will likely shake confidence in its executive. Von der Leyen, a German ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, may be forced by Hogan’s resignation to shuffle her team of EU commissioners once Ireland proposes a new appointee.

Who Next?

On Thursday, von der Leyen said that Valdis Dombrovskis, an executive vice president of the commission, would temporarily take over the trade portfolio. She highlighted that it’s now up to the Irish government to present new candidates, and asked for one woman and one man to be proposed. “I expect the members of the college to be particularly vigilant about compliance with applicable national or regional rules and recommendations,” she warned.

Ireland’s three coalition party leaders will meet to discuss possible replacements, Prime Minister Micheal Martin said Thursday. “Nothing has been discussed in terms of any particular individuals up to now,” he added.

Dismissal of EU Trade Chief Sets Awkward Precedent for Bloc

More Controversies?

As von der Leyen grappled over how to handle the Hogan controversy, some warned about the risks to the commission’s effectiveness that would arise were she to sacrifice Hogan.

Another senior official wondered whether jettisoning Hogan might open the door to pandemic-related controversies affecting other individual commissioners. Von der Leyen knows less about their summer activities than she now does about his.

Hogan’s ouster is further evidence of the extent to which the coronavirus has upended the current political environment.

EU commissioners are very rarely forced out of office and the circumstances of Hogan’s departure differ markedly from other cases, which have related to corruption rather than the much grayer area of respect for national or even local health measures.

The European health commissioner stepped down in 2012 over an influence-peddling controversy tied to tobacco legislation and the whole commission leadership team resigned as a result of a scandal involving France’s appointee in 1999, when the president had less scope to remove individual members.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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