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EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan on Sunday defied calls from the government in Dublin that he should consider quitting his post in Brussels after he broke coronavirus rules to attend a packed golfing soirée.
The golf dinner at a hotel in Ireland’s west coast county of Galway on Wednesday triggered an explosion of political fury because some of the country’s political, legal and media top brass flouted pandemic regulations while much of the population is limiting interactions with friends and family.
On Saturday evening, Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin and deputy premier Leo Varadkar, frustrated by Hogan’s scant early signs of contrition, said the commissioner should “consider his position.”
On Sunday, however, the EU trade chief indicated his resignation was not on the cards and issued a fuller apology for his trip to the three-star hotel in Clifden.
“I acknowledge my actions have touched a nerve for the people of Ireland, something for which I am profoundly sorry,” Hogan wrote. “I realise fully the unnecessary stress, risk and offense caused to the people of Ireland by my attendance at such an event, at such a difficult time for all, and I am extremely sorry for this.”
While not widely popular, he is viewed as a tough negotiator, however.
In reference to the call from Martin and Varadkar that he weigh up his future, Hogan simply said had “listened carefully to their views, which I respect.” As he is an EU official, the Irish government cannot unilaterally remove the commissioner.
Hogan has a reputation as a hardy political brawler and his career has weathered waves of hostility in Ireland before, particularly over the introduction of water charges amid the financial crisis. More recently, many of the country’s farmers have expressed anger over his role in securing a trade deal with the South American Mercosur bloc, which they fear could undermine Ireland’s beef sector.
While not widely popular, he is viewed as a tough negotiator, however. This could prove important for Ireland’s national interests as Brexit talks look headed for a messy endgame. Trade is one of the most powerful portfolios in the European Commission and there is no guarantee that Dublin would keep the slot if Hogan quits.
Appointing a new commissioner could also expose fissures within the coalition government, in which Martin’s Fianna Fáil and Hogan’s own Fine Gael both play a role.
Fine Gael’s Varadkar also struck a far softer tone on Hogan in a radio interview with broadcaster RTÉ on Sunday afternoon, noting that Hogan had defended himself by saying that as a non-resident in Ireland he was not as familiar with the coronavirus guidelines as a cabinet minister. The agriculture minister, who shared the same table at the golf event as Hogan, had to resign.
When asked whether he was now satisfied with Hogan, Varadkar said: “I think the apology helps, it would have been better if it had come sooner, but it definitely helps.” The deputy premier added that he had confidence in Hogan’s ability to do his job as trade commissioner.
Jim O’Callaghan, a Fianna Fáil lawmaker, who spoke on the same radio show also stressed the importance of keeping an Irishman in the key EU portfolio, suggesting a broader cooling of the tensions between Hogan and the Irish government.
Varadkar also said he had not raised the matter with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
When challenged about why the government on Sunday seemed to be rowing back on its tough stance on Hogan and whether Dublin was creating a rift with their man in Brussels, Varadkar let slip an indication that there had been some political theater involved. “I think it was important we understood and reflected the public mood,” he said.
Hogan himself said in his statement Sunday that he had “been reporting to the President of the European Commission on all these matters in recent days.”
A Commission spokesperson said in a text message: “The President is following the situation closely. She requested Commissioner Hogan to provide a full report with details of the event. It is important that facts are established in detail to carefully assess the situation.”
The political storm has centered on the parliamentary golf society’s 50th-anniversary celebration. Dubbed golfgate, over 80 people attended the function, vastly outstripping the maximum number of six people allowed to gather inside under Ireland’s latest coronavirus restrictions.
Even if Hogan survives this latest crisis, the 60-year-old may sustain damage to his international reputation, which was already dented by his failed attempt to run for the top job at the World Trade Organization this year.
Hogan’s initial refusal last week to apologize for his attendance at the golfing event particularly riled Prime Minister Martin who demanded on Friday that Hogan should “be far more fulsome in his response” to public criticism.
The commissioner’s statement on Sunday ultimately used that very word, saying: “I thus offer this fulsome and profound apology, at this difficult time for all people, as the world as a whole combats COVID-19.”
This story was updated with a comment from the European Commission.