E.U. Trade Chief Quits, a Casualty of Dinner That Flouted Virus Rules

By Steven Erlanger and Matina Stevis-Gridneff

Phil Hogan had one of the most powerful jobs in Brussels, and leaves at a pivotal time in trade relations. The dinner he attended with politicians in Ireland has become a political scandal.

Phil Hogan, the European Union’s trade commissioner, resigned after violating virus regulations to attend a dinner at a golf club in Ireland.
Phil Hogan, the European Union’s trade commissioner, resigned after violating virus regulations to attend a dinner at a golf club in Ireland.Credit...Olivier Hoslet/EPA, via Shutterstock

BRUSSELS — Phil Hogan, the influential trade commissioner for the European Union, resigned Wednesday night over breaches to coronavirus guidelines during a recent dinner with lawmakers and other public figures in his native Ireland.

Mr. Hogan issued a statement expressing regret and making an “apology to the Irish people.’’

He was under great pressure at home after attending the dinner last week at a golf club, near Ireland’s west coast, in violation of coronavirus restrictions. The dinner, attended by about 80 politicians and government officials, violated a ban on large gatherings and fueled a sense that the powerful consider themselves above the rules they impose on others.

The uproar had already led to the resignation of Ireland’s agriculture minister and the disciplining of several lawmakers.

Mr. Hogan insisted on Tuesday that he had adhered to all rules during the trip, having gotten a negative coronavirus test. But Ireland’s regulations require anyone coming from Belgium to undergo a 14-day quarantine, which Mr. Hogan did not do.

On Tuesday evening, leaders of Ireland’s governing coalition, including the taoiseach, or prime minister, Micheal Martin, said in a joint statement that Mr. Hogan had been in breach of public health guidelines, and that his “delayed and hesitant release of information has undermined public confidence.”

As trade minister, Mr. Hogan, 60, occupied one of the most important positions in the European Commission, the bloc’s bureaucracy. A large, boisterous and blunt man, Mr. Hogan, a 6-foot-5 former farmer, was considered a good choice to represent Europe to the Trump administration, which has made the American trade deficit a major issue in international relations. The bilateral trade relationship is worth about $1 trillion a year.

“Personality matters, especially with the United States,’’ said Mujtaba Rahman, chief Europe analyst for the Eurasia Group. “He could deal with Trump and Robert Lighthizer,” President Trump’s trade representative, he said. Just last week, Washington and Brussels agreed on a tariff reduction deal — modest, but the first in a long time.

Ursula von der Leyen, the Commission president, will need to choose another Irish citizen to replace Mr. Hogan, though not necessarily with the same portfolio. There are numerous possibilities, including David O’Sullivan, who has much experience in Brussels. Mr. O’Sullivan was a senior trade official until 2010 and was most recently the bloc’s ambassador in Washington.

Importantly, Mr. Hogan’s top deputy, Sabine Weyand, is expected to remain. Ms. Weyand, a German who had previously worked on Brexit, is considered one of the stars of Brussels, with a sharp eye for detail.

Mr. Hogan had also put some noses in Brussels out of joint when he floated his name as a candidate to run the World Trade Organization. While his candidacy was highly unlikely, some European officials felt he had underestimated the importance of the job he already held, with the European Union struggling to balance its trading interests between the Trump administration and a more aggressive China.

Updated August 27, 2020

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Mr. Hogan also played an important role in Brexit negotiations, navigating the difficulties of trade between Northern Ireland, which is a part of Britain, and the Irish Republic, a member of the European Union, while maintaining the invisible border between them.

While a change in commissioners will be disruptive, “the philosophy of E.U. trade is unlikely to change much,” said Mr. Rahman. The bloc will continue, he said, to leverage its status as “the world’s second-biggest market to impose European standards and priorities on trading partners.”