Phil Hogan has quit his post as EU trade commissioner after days of intense pressure over claims that he broke coronavirus rules.
Hogan resigned on Wednesday after the Irish government accused him of breaching Covid-19 guidelines in what has been dubbed “Golfgate”.
He had attended a golf club dinner with more than 80 people in County Galway on 19 August and was criticised for not complying with quarantine rules when he arrived in Ireland from Brussels.
The official, a key member of the European Commission who had withstood calls for him to quit, said he did not break any law but he "should have been more rigorous" in adherence to the Covid guidelines.
In a statement, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who was given a report on the affair by Hogan earlier this week, said, “I respect his decision. I am very grateful to him for his tireless work as a trade commissioner since the start of this mandate and for his successful term as commissioner in charge of agriculture in the previous College. He was a valuable and respected member of the College. I wish him all the best for the future.”
Hogan himself also issued a long statement in which he apologies but says, “It is important to state that I did not break any law.”
The statement read, “It was becoming increasingly clear that the controversy concerning my recent visit to Ireland was becoming a distraction from my work as an EU commissioner and would undermine my work in the key months ahead.
“I deeply regret that my trip to Ireland – the country that I have been so proud to represent as a public servant for most of my adult life - caused such concern, unease and upset. I have always tried to comply with all relevant Covid-19 regulations in Ireland and had understood that I had met with all relevant public health guidelines, particularly following confirmation of a negative Covid-19 test.”
“I deeply regret that my trip to Ireland – the country that I have been so proud to represent as a public servant for most of my adult life - caused such concern, unease and upset" Outgoing European Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan
It adds, “I reiterate my heartfelt apology to the Irish people for the mistakes I made during my visit. The Irish people have made incredible efforts to contain the coronavirus.
“Let me say from the heart that I fully appreciate and recognise the challenge presented by the Covid-19 pandemic to our society and the global economy.
“I recognise and appreciate the devastating impact of Covid-19 on individuals and families, and I fully understand their sense of hurt and anger when they feel that those in public service do not meet the standards expected of them.
“It is important to state that I did not break any law. As a public representative I should have been more rigorous in my adherence to the Covid guidelines.”
Hogan goes on, “It has been the honour of my life to serve as commissioner. I made a lifelong commitment to public service, throughout the course of my almost 40-year political career. I am proud of my record and achievements as commissioner and I hope history will judge them favourably, when the final assessment is made.”
He concludes, “I would like to thank president von der Leyen, my fellow commissioners, council members and MEPs for their support and encouragement since my appointment as commissioner. I would also like to thank my cabinet, team and family for their support."
“I respect his decision. I am very grateful to him for his tireless work as a trade commissioner since the start of this mandate and for his successful term as commissioner in charge of agriculture in the previous College. He was a valuable and respected member of the College. I wish him all the best for the future” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
Following news of the resignation, the Irish prime minister Micheál Martin deputy prime minister Leo Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said it was "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," a joint statement stated.
Ireland will now need to nominate a new commissioner. The trade commissioner oversees the EU's common commercial policy.
The candidate nominated to succeed Hogan will need to appear before a European parliamentary committee for evaluation. If approved by the panel, the nominee will then be formally appointed as trade commissioner by the council.
Reaction was swift with the EU’s director general for trade, Sabine Weyand, describing it as “a sad day”.
“We will sorely miss you (Hogan) your stamina, dedication and negotiating talent, in dealing with the many challenges the global economy and EU trade face.”
Renew Europe Irish MEP Barry Andrews said the European Commission “has tried to become more political, connect with EU citizens and indeed be more accountable”.
Irish Labour Party leader Alan Kelly said he welcomed Hogan’s decision but said it “is five days overdue and has resulted in enormous damage to our effort to tackle Covid-19. The government needs to move quickly to fill the vacancy that now arises in the commission at what is a critical moment for Ireland.”
Simon Coveney, the former Irish deputy prime minister and current foreign affairs minister is the favourite to succeed Hogan but there is no guarantee Ireland will keep the important trade portfolio.