BRUSSELS – The European Union's executive commission is emerging from its summer vacation down a key official and with an additional big problem on its hands.
At a time when European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen should be centering on managing the coronavirus pandemic, an unprecedented economic collapse and her mid-September State of the Union address, she was holding urgent talks on Thursday on how to replace her top trade official, who resigned the evening before for being too loose with COVID-19 rules.
It means the EU has lost the trusted and experienced Irishman Phil Hogan as EU trade commissioner, a vital post in dealing with the United States, China and post-Brexit Britain. With all three issues demanding daily attention, there is an urgency to fill the hole so-called Big Phil left.
In a curt statement, Von der Leyen Thursday lauded “his tireless and successful work," but dwelled precious little time on a former commissioner many thought reckless in his movements during a visit back home in Ireland over the past month.
Not only had Hogan attended a posh golf dinner with around 80 guests when maximum attendance should have been much lower, but he was also criticized for traveling in parts of Ireland where a lockdown was in force — and for emerging early from a mandatory two-week quarantine.
Hogan resigned himself before Von der Leyen made a decision on whether to keep him. Her intentions though, may have been clear when she addressed accountability for everyone holding high office.
“As Europe fights to reduce the spread of the coronavirus and Europeans make sacrifices and accept painful restrictions, I expect the members of the college (commissioners) to be particularly vigilant,” von der Leyen said about Hogan’s travel decisions over the past month in Ireland.
An hour later, Von der Leyen was already on the phone to Dublin to discuss who might replace him.
Von der Leyen insisted it was far from clear that Ireland could simply replace Hogan and ensure holding onto the powerful trade portfolio. She indicated she would wait for Ireland to come up with new candidates and decide “at a later stage” where the replacement would be slotted into the 27-strong team.
“We need a strong and safe hand at the trade helm to steer Europe through these turbulent waters,” said Kathleen Van Brempt, a Socialist member of European Parliament.
There is more at play though. Von der Leyen is committed to gender balance in the European Commission and before Hogan's resignation, that balance stood at 15 men and 12 women. Among potential candidates touted is European Parliament heavyweight Mairead McGuinness.
“I will invite the Irish government to propose a woman and a man" as candidates, she said, before she would decide what portfolio would be available.
Others being tipped though are men, notably current Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who has great experience in Brexit, trade and agriculture issues.
Each EU member state has one commissioner and the easiest solution would be a straightforward replacement, leaving the rest of the European Commission team intact.