EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan is facing pressure to resign as a controversy escalates over a violation of Covid-19 restrictions in his native Ireland.
Micheál Martin, Ireland’s prime minister, and Leo Varadkar, deputy premier, issued a joint statement on Saturday night calling on Mr Hogan to consider his position. The move followed a clamour from opposition parties over a dinner the commissioner attended with 81 people that was organised by a golf society in the Irish parliament.
“The taoiseach [prime minister] and the tánaiste [deputy premier] did speak with Commissioner Hogan today and asked him to consider his position,” the government said in a statement.
“Both believe that the event should never have been held, that the commissioner’s apology came late and that he still needs to give a full account and explanations of his actions.”
A European Commission spokesperson said on Friday that Mr Hogan had attended the event in “good faith”, having been assured it would be held in compliance with government rules and guidelines, and that with hindsight he would not have gone had he realised this was not the case. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the commission, had been informed of the matter, the spokesperson said.
Public and private gatherings are strictly limited in Ireland, and the perception that some members of the political establishment failed to strictly adhere to the rules has sparked public fury. The Dáil assembly is to be recalled early from its summer recess to discuss the affair.
Mr Hogan, Ireland’s member of the commission since 2014, has told allies he intends to stay in post. In a statement on Sunday he offered a “fulsome and profound apology” for the situation, saying: “I realise fully the unnecessary stress, risk and offence caused to the people of Ireland by my attendance at such an event, at such a difficult time for all.”
Mr Hogan confirmed in the statement that he had spoken both to the prime minister and deputy prime minister and that he had “listened carefully to their views, which I respect”, adding that he had been reporting to Ms von der Leyen about the matter in recent days.
The trade commissioner has one of the most powerful jobs in Brussels. He is at the centre of sensitive Brexit talks that are crucial to Ireland’s future. He is also attempting to engineer an improvement in the EU’s trade relations with the US, and on Friday secured a breakthrough with Robert Lighthizer, the US trade representative, as the first negotiated tariff reduction between the US and EU in more than 20 years was announced.
A change of personnel at the top of EU trade policy could disrupt the policy initiative with the US and create a major problem for Ms von der Leyen, who like Mr Hogan is a member of the centre-right European People’s Party political grouping.
While the Irish government does not have the power to remove its nominee to the commission, Mr Varadkar’s intervention was significant, given that he is politically close to Mr Hogan and a fellow member of the Fine Gael party.
The Irish government imposed new curbs only the day before the gathering as infections in the country began to surge, stating that “no formal or informal events or parties should be organised” in hotel restaurants.
Dara Calleary, Ireland’s agriculture minister, resigned from cabinet hours after a newspaper reported he was at the hotel event.
With infections on the rise and Mr Martin’s government preparing to issue contentious estimated grades next month for state school leaving exams, public disquiet at the affair has raised questions over the ability of Ireland’s three-party coalition to impose and maintain stringent health guidelines.
As the opposition pressed Mr Hogan to consider his position on Friday, the commissioner at first said he understood the event complied with guidelines and was quickly criticised for not expressing remorse. He later apologised for any distress caused by his attendance.
Mr Hogan was previously agriculture commissioner in the commission. His promotion to trade last year came amid intensive Brexit talks that have been dominated for years by arguments over the future of the Irish border, making him an important contact between Brussels, Dublin and other member states.
He has had a turbulent time since arriving in the trade post last year. Earlier this year he entered the race to become the next head of the World Trade Organization, before pulling out when it became clear he could not muster sufficient support.