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The European Commission president said Thursday her team could face a reshuffle after the resignation of the Irish trade commissioner over a controversy involving his questionable adherence to COVID-19 rules.
Ursula von der Leyen insisted it was far from clear that Ireland could simply replace Phil Hogan and ensure holding on to 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.
“I will invite the Irish government to propose a woman and a man” as candidates before she would decide what portfolio would be available.
Each EU member state has one commissioner and the easiest solution would be a straightforward replacement, leaving the rest of the Commission team intact.
The search for a new trade chief comes at an awkward time, 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.
Hogan resigned late Wednesday because the scandal about his whereabouts and suspect adherence to COVID-19 rules “was becoming a distraction from my work,” he said.
He came 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.
“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 to be particularly vigilant,” von der Leyen said about Hogan’s travel decisions over the past month in Ireland.
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 was in force — 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.