EU trade chief fights to keep job as ‘Golfgate’ rolls on

Irish tabloids appear to be delighted with the scandal. [@caulmick Twitter]

Embattled EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan was fighting to keep his title on Tuesday (25 August), as the Irish government said he breached a trio of coronavirus guidelines on a trip to the Republic to attend a parliamentary golf society dinner.

In a statement Irish prime minister Micheál Martin and his coalition government partners said “concerns remain” around Hogan’s recent tour of the Republic — despite the trade chief issuing an apology.

According to the statement, Hogan failed to observe a two-week quarantine after arriving in Ireland and failed to limit his travel in a county observing a localised lockdown.

He also “should not have attended the Oireachtas (parliament) Golf Society dinner”, the statement said.

Hogan was among the more than 80 diners — including a cabinet minister, a supreme court judge and swathes of lawmakers — at the August 19 event, one day after the government announced fresh restrictions on such events.

“It is clear that breaches of public health guidelines were made by Commissioner Phil Hogan since he travelled to Ireland,” read the statement.

“People are correctly angered by these actions given the sacrifices so many have made to adhere to public health guidance.”

Scandal dinner 

The sporting dinner has sparked a series of resignations at the top tier of Irish politics — including agriculture minister Dara Calleary and deputy chair of the upper house of parliament Jerry Buttimer.

Hogan initially declined to apologise for his attendance and details of his movements around Ireland — including through a county in lockdown — have emerged sporadically.

The situation was made even worse after it was revealed that he was pulled over by an Irish police officer for using his phone while driving.

“His delayed and hesitant release of information has undermined public confidence,” the Irish government statement added.

Hogan is facing increasing criticism for breaching the government recommended 14-day isolation period after arriving in Ireland at the end of July.

On Tuesday night he told state broadcaster RTE he was exempt from the isolation requirement, having tested negative for coronavirus.

But Ireland’s health service said the two-week isolation should be observed even in the case of a negative test, to account for the incubation period of the virus.

“I don’t accept that — I did everything possible to ensure that I was no risk to anybody,” Hogan told RTE.

“My medical people said I was free to go.”

He said his attendance at the golf dinner had become “a very big embarrassment”.

Future in peril

On Tuesday Hogan published a detailed account of the visit to Ireland, as he sought to stop the snowballing scandal.

The 1,400-word account came at the strong urging of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who holds the fate of Hogan in her hands.

“Set out below are the relevant requirements issued by the Irish Government in relation to Covid-19 and how I adhered to them at all times while in Ireland,” Hogan said in the memo addressed to von der Leyen, his boss.

Von der Leyen has proceeded with caution in the affair and asked Hogan to provide her with a report on the details of his moves in Ireland during his time there, as well as what health rules were in place.

“Once the detailed report is available, the president will feel confident that she has the full picture, which will enable her to complete her assessment,” Dana Spinant, a spokeswoman for von der Leyen, told reporters.

The job of trade commissioner is one of the most powerful yet challenging EU posts, with constant world travel to negotiate deals or agree truces with major trading partners.

If Hogan were to be pushed out or resign, nothing says Ireland would win back the job. Filling the post would be a political headache for Von der Leyen at a challenging time for Europe.

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