It has sent shockwaves around Brussels. Possibly because no-one expected such a giant of EU policymaking and deft political operator to back himself into such a corner. Some Brussels insiders have even questioned whether he should have resigned at all. But for the EU’s sometime trade commissioner Phil Hogan, there really was no other way out.
Back in Ireland 80 senior politicians and dignitaries had flagrantly broken the government’s recently-updated social distancing rules by attending a parliamentary golf dinner. At a time when pubs remain firmly shut to the common man and woman, the arrogance and hypocrisy on display were astounding, and predictably enough a massive hue and cry ensued.
The gathering was a roll-call of Ireland’s great and good, from the then commissioner himself to a government minister, Supreme Court justice, distinguished senators and sundry Teachtaí Dála, members of Ireland’s lower house. I’m not sure whether soufflé was on the menu, but Ireland’s political élite emerged from that particular dinner with lots of egg on its face.
Public sentiment was seething. The government had already sacrificed a cabinet minister (agriculture minister Dara Calleary) to the scandal, and the pressure in Ireland for Mr Hogan’s head to roll had become irresistible. Back in Brussels the Commission initially had defended him even when Dublin was calling for him to be sacked. But the fact that Mr Hogan himself misled his boss Ursula von der Leyen about his movements in Ireland and breaking quarantine rules ultimately made his position untenable. Egg was now on her face. He had to go.
Some people have called him arrogant and overbearing and say this has been his undoing. Whatever the veracity of that, big Phil leaves some big shoes to fill. He was a skilled negotiator adept at balancing interests. While he has been lauded in some Brussels policy papers as an unwavering defender of European farmers, the reality was not quite so simple. Mr Hogan was a pragmatist and, as befit his role, pushed the broad interests of the EU over the narrow ones of husbandmen at home: as agriculture commissioner he was instrumental in securing compromise on beef quotas that helped get the Mercosur trade deal over the line.
Ms von der Leyen has asked Dublin to put forward the name of one woman and one man as candidate commissioners to replace Mr Hogan. Heavyweight names being bandied about include Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney; former secretary-general of the Commission Catherine Day; the EU’s erstwhile ambassador to the US David O’Sullivan; Mairead McGuinness, a vice-president of the European Parliament, and European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly. With multiple high-level EU jobs under his belt, including Commission secretary-general, COO of the EU’s foreign service, and secretary-general of DG Trade itself, Mr O’Sullivan is being touted as a favourite.
But whomever she chooses, it’s unsure whether Ireland will retain Trade: Ms von der Leyen’s reference to filling ‘portfolios’ in the plural suggests not, and she’s already appointed a trade commissioner as interim, which doesn’t bode well for Ireland retaining the job. At a crucial time of negotiating the final Brexit deal that will much impact Ireland, the country’s position in Europe could well be diminished.
An Irish national, George Candon is Strategy Director at H+K Brussels