EU trade chief’s defence of pandemic actions draws Irish ire

DUBLIN • Ireland’s government undercut efforts by Phil Hogan (picture), the European Union’s (EU) trade chief, to minimise the fallout from his visit last week to a golf dinner in his native country that violated coronavirus regulations.

Ireland’s Prime Minister (PM) Micheal Martin, Leo Varadkar, the deputy PM, and Green coalition partner Eamon Ryan late on Tuesday said his “delayed and hesitant” response undermined public confidence. Ryan added later that Hogan’s public comments could also impair health regulations.

It’s now up to Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president and Hogan’s boss, whether the powerful trade chief should step aside. The commission has stood by Hogan until now, even after requesting that he submit two reports and further clarifications amid the shifting details and circumstances of his story.

The government has lost confidence in Hogan “because of that lack of immediate transparency and explanation”, Ryan said in an interview on RTE radio yesterday. “Our loss of confidence is because of, I think, for fear of loss of public confidence in public health guidelines.”

Overt pressure from the Irish government could limit von der Leyen’s room to manoeuvre, since the commission rigorously guards its independence from national capitals, to two EU officials. While von der Leyen wants to take an approach that underscores the severity of the pandemic, the commission also can’t be seen to bow to every government’s attempt to influence it, said one of the officials, who asked not to be identified discussing internal matters.

Hogan has apologised repeatedly for attending a golf dinner in Ireland during the pandemic, an event that is under police investigation for being in breach of rules and forced a minister to resign. The trade chief accepted he should not have gone, but reiterated he had been assured it complied with virus restrictions.

But the scope of criticism now is much wider. In a testy interview with the national broadcaster on Tuesday, Hogan said he left his self-isolation for a “medical intervention” six days after arriving in the country. While in the hospital, he tested negative for Covid-19, which absolved him of the need to quarantine further, he said, even though regulations stipulate that most travellers to the country must self-isolate for 14 days.

“I don’t accept that,” he said when the RTE interviewer suggested to him that Irish government rules required him to stay in isolation regardless of the negative test, adding he was “satisfied” that he was “no risk to anybody” once he had received the test result.

But an emailed statement from the Irish health authority makes clear that was a mistake: “As per information published on our website, a person is required to restrict their movements for 14 days if they arrive into Ireland from a country that is not on the Covid-19 green list.” Belgium, where Hogan came from, is not on that list.

The government’s statement also contradicted Hogan, saying “guidelines clearly required him to restrict his movements for 14 days”.

The imbroglio with Irish government leaders comes at a challenging time for the EU, with Hogan helping chart its future association with the UK and leading talks to update trade ties with the US, a relationship worth about US$1.3 trillion (RM5.46 trillion) a year.

In an interview with the Financial Times on Tuesday, Hogan said he hoped that his explanation of the events would be “a solid basis for allowing me to continue in the trade portfolio and as a commissioner”.

“It is clear that breaches of public health guidelines were made by commissioner Hogan since he travelled to Ireland,” according to the statement from the Irish government. “People are correctly angered by these actions given the sacrifices so many have made to adhere to public health guidance.” — Bloomberg