Why Phil Hogan (eventually) had to go

Tim King writes POLITICO‘s Brussels Sketch.        

Trade negotiators are famous for their mastery of technical detail, but Phil Hogan just lost his job as the EU’s top trade negotiator because the details didn’t add up.

His departure was certainly not inevitable. As I recently argued in another column, Hogan’s attendance at a parliamentary golf society dinner that breached Ireland’s COVID-19 rules need not have put a premature end to his Commission career — even though it had already claimed the scalps of various national politicians.

As a commissioner, he was not answerable to the national party leaders who, in the face of an upsurge of popular indignation in Ireland, sacked those that they could. Unfortunately for Hogan, however, his response in the days since the scandal broke caused European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to conclude he was too damaged to keep.

There’s a reason Hogan managed to hang on for several days after news of the dinner broke almost a week ago, and there’s a reason why he ultimately had to leave his job as European commissioner for trade.

Von der Leyen will have been loath to lose an experienced two-term commissioner, with a five-year term on the agriculture portfolio already under his belt. But Hogan’s initial defense that it was the responsibility of the organizers to ensure that the event was COVID-compliant quickly fell apart.

It might have held up, had it not been undermined by a heady cocktail of Hogan’s own vanity and inanity. An initially sparse account of his movements was shown up as inadequate by the revelation that he had been stopped by the police for using his mobile phone while driving. A more detailed account of his movements — submitted to the president of the Commission and published — was also swiftly shown up as incomplete.

And the itinerary showed that Hogan had not respected the quarantine rules that lesser mortals were being required to comply with. The affectation of ignorance or misinterpretation of those rules was laced with a heavy whiff of evasion and cover-up.

Golf aficionados will see the irony: The successful golfer must endure the small losses and not compound the errors; must know when to go for broke and when to lay up short and play safe. Hogan went for broke and lost big time.

Von der Leyen has also lost big time. Hogan was an asset to her team. She had no wish to switch him or ditch him. But his misdemeanors gave her little choice.

A more bloody-minded president might have faced down the public opprobrium. Her predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, would have risked the Commission’s reputation for the sake of those to whom he felt personal loyalty. But von der Leyen is, it seems, less emotional and more calculating — and could see how easily the Commission’s claim to be defending citizens’ health and protecting their jobs would be undermined by defending and protecting Hogan.

It was also significant that the Irish government was calling for Hogan to resign (perhaps a rather formalistic call at the weekend, but repeated with more bite on Wednesday as more details of Hogan’s conduct emerged).

When a commissioner’s conduct is called into question, a Commission president will always be alive to the consequences of upsetting that commissioner’s home country. In 2016, Günther Oettinger (Germany’s European commissioner from 2010 to 2019) caused upset with some injudicious remarks at a business dinner and then ran into turbulence over accepting a flight on the private jet of an energy lobbyist.

But his position was never in doubt, because the German government would not brook the indignity of losing its commissioner — and it stood by Oettinger just as its predecessor had stood by Günter Verheugen (European commissioner, 1999-2010) when he lost credibility after denying an extra-marital affair with the head of his private office, Petra Erler. Von der Leyen’s decision over Hogan was made easier because she was doing what Dublin wanted.

A more delicate negotiation must now follow between Brussels and Dublin over who might be nominated to replace Hogan. One name being floated in trade circles is that of David O’Sullivan, whose long career as an EU official included being the Commission’s director general for trade, the EU’s ambassador in Washington and head of the private office of a Commission president.

Dublin might well see O’Sullivan as a quick and easy fix that secures the trade portfolio (which might otherwise be reassigned to a commissioner of another nationality) while not upsetting the delicate political balance in the coalition government. Von der Leyen, however, should ask for someone else.

O’Sullivan, albeit an experienced trade negotiator, is a bureaucrat not a politician. The precedent of Pascal Lamy is unhelpful. The Frenchman was head of the private office of Commission President Jacques Delors and then returned to Brussels in 1999 as trade commissioner and later went on to head the World Trade Organization. O’Sullivan is cut from a softer, gentler cloth than Lamy and that is not what is required.

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The Commission has no need of a second Sabine Weyand, the current director general for trade, but it may, on occasion, need a political steer, a politician who has standing both with those who set the negotiating brief on the EU side and with those who lead the negotiations on the other side.

That was what Phil Hogan offered — and that is what has been lost. Hogan has only himself to blame, but he will not be the only one to suffer the consequences.

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