BRUSSELS – The European Union's top trade official resigned late Wednesday after he became embroiled in a controversy over a recent trip home to Ireland and questionable adherence to COVID-19 rules.
The move will force the EU's executive office to replace key commissioner Phil Hogan in the midst of the pandemic crisis, amid fraught trade relations with the United States and China, and as the final months of talks on a future deal with post-Brexit Britain approach.
“It was becoming increasingly clear that the controversy concerning my recent visit to Ireland was becoming a distraction from my work," Hogan said.
He has come under fire in his home country amid allegations he skirted rules other Irish citizens have to live by to contain the second wave of the pandemic: Not only had Hogan attended a posh golf dinner with some 80 guests when maximum attendance should have been much lower, but he was also criticized for traveling in parts of Ireland where a lockdown applied — and for emerging early from a mandatory two-week quarantine.
He contested some perceived errors but also acknowledged a fundamental flaw in not paying enough attention to the rigors of the anti-COVID-19 fight while the public at large was constrained from morning till night.
“I fully understand (people's) sense of hurt and anger when they feel that those in public service do not meet the standards expected of them,” he said. “As a public representative I should have been more rigorous in my adherence to the COVID guidelines.”
The EU has consistently underscored the importance of obeying all restrictions imposed by the 27 member countries, and turning a blind eye to infractions by its own top officials would undermine that effort.
“I reiterate my heartfelt apology to the Irish people for the mistakes I made during my visit,' Hogan said, but insisted he broke no laws.
EU Commission chief Ursula Von der Leyen had been assessing whether to fire Hogan over his travel infractions when he said he would resign — insisting he was jumping and had not been pushed. Hogan had earlier lost the support of the Irish government, but the final decision on his fate was for Von der Leyen to make.
“I respect his decision," Von der Leyen said. “I am very grateful to him for his tireless work as a Trade Commissioner since the start of this mandate."
The resignation could well mark the end of the policial career of the 60-year old, who had also been an agriculture Commissioner during a previous mandate.
The scandal was fueled further by changes in Hogan’s account of his actions, as he issued a series of statements about his travel and adherence to the rules Ireland had imposed.
Hogan’s detailed memorandum to von der Leyen on Tuesday sparked renewed allegations that he violated Irish quarantine rules after he returned to the country from Brussels last month. Ireland requires anyone returning from a country with high levels of COVID-19 to self-isolate for 14 days.
Hogan said he returned to Ireland on July 31, filled out the required passenger locator form and self-isolated until Aug. 5, when he went to a hospital for an undisclosed medical procedure. Hogan said he stopped self-isolating after being discharged on Aug. 6 because he tested negative for COVID-19 during the hospital stay.
Hogan said he believed this was appropriate based on advice posted on the government-sponsored Citizens Information website. But the government website says people returning from any country that isn’t on the government’s “green list” should self-isolate for the full 14 days, regardless of testing.
Hogan was most sorry for attending the golf society dinner last week.
“Let me be very clear: I made a mistake by going to that event. I’m embarrassed about it," he said.
Danica Kirka in London contributed to this story