European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen seeking a man and a woman for the job
Phil Hogan last night became the latest casualty of ‘Golfgate’ as he resigned from his influential EU role.
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said she respects the resignation of Phil Hogan, adding that she expects all commissioners to comply with health guidelines.
Her comments came after the Irish Government said the former EU trade commissioner had made the correct decision in resigning over his attendance at a golf dinner during the coronavirus pandemic.
He had been expected to play a key role in negotiating the EU’s arrangements with Britain after Brexit.
Mr Hogan was among more than 80 people at the event in the west of Ireland last week, as the country tries to contain a new spike in Covid-19 cases and limit social gatherings.
Ms von der Leyen said on Thursday: “I thank him warmly for his valuable contribution to the work of the Commission, not only in this mandate but also in the previous mandate where he was the commissioner in charge of agriculture and rural development.
“Over the past days, I discussed with Phil Hogan about his movements in Ireland in light of information that emerged regarding respect of public health guidelines in Ireland.
“In the current circumstances, as Europe fights to reduce the spread of the coronavirus and Europeans make sacrifices and accept painful restrictions, I expect the members of the College (of Commissioners) to be particularly vigilant about compliance with applicable national or regional rules or recommendations.”
Ms von der Leyen said she will ask the Irish Government to propose two candidates – one woman and one man – for the role.
She added: “Executive vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis will assume interim responsibilities for trade matters and at a later stage I will decide on the final allocation of portfolios in the College of Commissioners.”
After days of mounting pressure over his actions and movements after arriving back in Ireland, now former commissioner Phil Hogan insisted he broke “no law or regulation” in relation to Covid-19. His departure prompts major questions over whether Ireland will retain the hugely important EU trade portfolio amid ongoing fears of a no-trade deal Brexit.
Fáil MEP Barry Andrews has said nominating Simon Coveney to replace Mr Hogan at the European Commission could see Ireland hang on the powerful trade portfolio.
"I think Simon Coveney is probably the only one who could save the day on that front," Mr Andrews said, adding: "He is an ex MEP. He’s also obviously Foreign Affairs minister and he knows his way around Brussels."
Government sources last night said that Mr Hogan's successor - and which coalition party they would come - from has not yet been discussed.
Mr Andrews' backing of the senior Fine Gael minister may raise some eyebrows in his own party.
But he said he expects that the candidate would be from Fine Gael as this would maintain the current balance between political groupings on the Commission.
Mr Andrews, a member of the European Parliament's trade committee, said he would be "very, very surprised" if Ireland manages to keep the key portfolio.
He said that he believes Mr Hogan got it because he was a second term Commissioner and that "carried weight".
The Dublin MEP also said: "I definitely don’t agree with having a diplomat of civil servant take up the role as has been mentioned.
"It’s a political role. It’s part of the whole idea of connecting with voters that there is somebody there who is a politician.
"If you give it to a technocrat – it’s like appointing a politician as an ambassador. It doesn’t work that way."
However, Mr Andrew's remarks about Mr Coveney came before Ms von der Leyen said she wants and man and a woman to be nominated.
This afternoon Mr Andrews said the Commission President "is very ambitious to achieve gender balance in the College of Commissioners".
He told RTÉ Radio: "It strikes me that she’s very close to achieving gender balance at the college.
"I think she will appoint a female actually whoever is nominated from Ireland and therefore if we are to have any chance of retaining the trade portfolio I think we really do need to nominate somebody of very considerable weight."
He reiteration his opposition to a "technocrat" being appointed but added if that is the cost of retaining the portfolio then I think it’s worth paying.
Anger over his attendance was exacerbated by a slow drip-feed of further revelations over the past seven days. Mr Hogan tendered his resignation to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
He later told the Irish Independent now was not the time to discuss whether he felt he had got “fair play”. The Government said Mr Hogan had taken the “correct course of action”.
Mr Hogan said it had become clear to him that the storm over his attendance at last week’s infamous Oireachtas Golf Society dinner was a “distraction” from his work.
He said he came to the conclusion this would "continue and continue, and therefore I should resign".
He told the Irish Independent that the main focus of his resignation message was one of apology for any hurt or upset he caused many Irish people who had suffered during the Covid-19 pandemic.
"I'm resigning because I want to ensure people understand I know I made mistakes.
"I broke no law - or no regulation - but I should have given more care to the guidelines and advice," he said.
He said now was not the time to discuss whether he felt he had got "fair play" in the response of the Government to his situation.
Neither was he prepared to discuss the prospects of any successor nominated by Dublin holding the pivotal post of EU trade commissioner as another Brexit crisis deadline looms.
"I haven't had any opportunity to even consider that. Whoever my successor is, I can only wish him or her all the best now and in the future," Mr Hogan said.
A senior Government source said last night there was no contact from the commissioner and it was not known whether Ms von der Leyen had prior knowledge of the resignation emerging last night.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin is understood to have learned of the commissioner's plan to resign on social media.
The three Coalition party leaders have not discussed possible replacements for Mr Hogan.
Ms von der Leyen said of Mr Hogan: "He was a valuable and respected member of the College. I wish him all the best for the future."
A statement from Mr Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan acknowledged Mr Hogan's departure on "what must have been a difficult decision for him personally".
They said: "We believe that it is the correct course of action given the circumstances of the past week.
"We all have a responsibility to support and adhere to public health guidelines and regulations.
"We all must persevere in our efforts against Covid-19.
"Former Commissioner Hogan has served Europe and Ireland with distinction. The Government will consider his replacement in due course."
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar tweeted that Mr Hogan has "served Kilkenny, Ireland & Europe with distinction".
"His decision today must have been very difficult for him personally. It's sad that great career should end in this way," he added.
Despite expectations in Fine Gael that Mr Hogan's successor will be one of its members, a senior Fianna Fáil source insisted that there had been "no discussion or acceptance on any nominee".
Government sources last night insisted that discussions had not been taking place in recent days about Mr Hogan's successor or which party they would come from.
Fine Gael Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney is seen as a frontrunner given the role he has played spearheading Ireland's response to Brexit. Others in Fine Gael that could be considered include Justice Minister Helen McEntee - an ex-European Affairs Minister - and former communications minister Richard Bruton.
Selecting a Cabinet minister or TD would present a by-election headache for the Coalition that it would be far from guaranteed to win.
Labour leader Alan Kelly last night called on the Government to move quickly to fill the vacancy left by Mr Hogan, saying that the vacancy occurred at "a critical moment for Ireland" citing the Covid-19 pandemic and the possibility of a crash-out Brexit.
He added: "The Irish nominee must be a person of the highest calibre to impress upon the Commission President and the European Parliament that we should retain the trade portfolio.
"If necessary that means the government must break with tradition and consider a person from outside the party political system," he added.
Mr Hogan last night told RTÉ "This could be the end of my political chapter" after a career spanning almost 40 years. Mr Hogan's resignation comes a week after his attendance at the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner which also prompted the departure of Fianna Fáil's Dara Calleary as agriculture minister.