EU Trade Chief Fights to Keep His Job After Pandemic Stumble

The European Union’s top trade negotiator, Phil Hogan, faces a critical week with his job on the line even after he apologized expansively for attending a golf-society dinner in his native Ireland during the coronavirus pandemic.

His imbroglio with Irish government leaders comes at a challenging time for the EU, with Hogan helping chart its future association with the U.K. and leading talks to update trade ties with the U.S., a relationship worth about $1.3 trillion a year.

Irish Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who as former leader lobbied to get him the high-profile post, has kept up the pressure on Hogan. The EU commissioner went to last week’s social event a day after the Irish government said no formal or informal events or parties should be organized at cafes and restaurants.

Hogan took to Twitter on Sunday to say sorry again. He wished to “apologize fully and unreservedly,” in what became a seven-post thread. What he has going for him is that the European Commission may be hesitant to seek a new negotiator at such a sensitive moment in trade talks with the U.S., while the Irish government may be loath to give up one of the EU’s most important posts.

Hogan’s line of defense has been that he has always respected the quarantine rules since returning to Ireland. That has now come under attack too.

Hogan traveled to and left his home in County Kildare outside Dublin while the area was under lockdown and non-essential travel was banned, according to an official close to him. Hogan also stopped to pick up personal belongings and essential documents relating to the EU-U.S. trade negotiations, according to the official.

Irish state broadcaster RTE first reported this development.

The European Commission in Brussels, which ultimately will make the call, issued a statement of support for Hogan last week and while Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin and Varadkar criticized his actions, they stopped short of calling on Hogan to go.

The head of the EU’s executive arm and Hogan’s boss, Ursula von der Leyen, “is following the situation closely” and has asked him to provide “a full report with details of the event,” spokeswoman Dana Spinant said Sunday in Brussels. ”It is important that facts are established in detail to carefully assess the situation.”

That indicates he’s not in the clear just yet.

Golf Society

Police have opened an investigation and opposition politicians are calling for Hogan to go since he and about 80 others attended a function last week organized by the Irish parliament’s golf society. While Hogan apologized at the time for “any distress caused,” he said he followed the government’s quarantine rules and had been assured that the event met Ireland’s pandemic guidelines.

Varadkar said on Sunday that Hogan’s apology “helps” but should have come sooner.

Hogan still needs to be able to account for his actions around the golf event and if he has complied with Irish public health guidelines, Varadkar said on RTE Radio. “If he’s not able to do that or can’t do that then he needs to consider his position.”

Irish government minister Darragh O’Brien told RTE Radio on Monday that Hogan should resign.

“Yes I believe so,” O’Brien said when asked if Hogan should quit. “The commissioner needs to realize how rightly people are so angry about this event and his participation.”

U.S. Tariffs

With Hogan as point person, the EU has been pushing President Donald Trump’s administration to scrap tariffs on European steel and aluminum, ward off threats of more U.S. duties on European goods including cars and negotiate a settlement to a longstanding trans-Atlantic conflict over aircraft subsidies.

It’s unusual for EU commissioners to step aside.

The most striking case was in 1999 when the whole European Commission under Jacques Santer resigned because of a scandal involving France’s appointee, Edith Cresson. Since then, the head of the commission has gained more scope to ask individual commissioners to step down.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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