Hogan’s account crumbled and destroyed von der Leyen’s trust

‘Transparency’ of published itinerary led to public and press scrutiny for discrepancies

Former EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan: There is a perception he opted to fight himself into a corner rather than coming clean early and possibly keeping his job. Photograph: Gareth Chaney

Former EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan: There is a perception he opted to fight himself into a corner rather than coming clean early and possibly keeping his job. Photograph: Gareth Chaney

 

Ireland’s former commissioner Phil Hogan had to resign because he destroyed trust with his boss, commission president Ursula von der Leyen, by holding back details about his time in Ireland in a way that made his position untenable, The Irish Times understands.

There was widespread regret and some bewilderment in Brussels in the wake of Hogan’s departure, with a perception that the commissioner had opted to fight himself into a corner rather than coming clean early and possibly keeping his job.

Instead, the commission spent almost five days in back-and-forth requests for information and clarification from Hogan to establish his movements in Ireland, a period in which pressure mounted on von der Leyen to act due to a drip feed of new revelations in the media and mounting calls for his resignation from Dublin.

Public statements and conversations with people with insight into the affair reveal a tortuous process.

When the commission was first faced with questions about the conduct of Hogan on Friday, on the morning after the story about the Clifden golf dinner broke, all signs were that it would defend its man. Spokeswoman Dana Spinant said he had self-isolated for 14 days on arrival in Ireland, in “an example of how seriously he takes rules and regulations on Covid-19”.

Clarifications sought

The first sign the commission was growing unhappy with Hogan’s account came on Monday morning. Spinant revealed that he had given a report of his movements in Ireland to von der Leyen on Sunday, but that she had gone back to him for clarifications. “Details are important and she wishes to have them,” she said.

Within a day, Hogan had admitted to the president that he had in fact not completed the 14-day period of self-isolation. The claim that was key to the commission’s initial defence of Hogan, by his own admission, was not true.

Inside the commission, doubts were growing. It seemed unfeasible to fact-check every claim Hogan provided. A decision was made to force the commissioner to publish his itinerary “to ensure full transparency”.

This meant every claim would be pored over for discrepancies by the public and by the press.

Hogan’s account crumbled shortly after publication. The Health Service Executive publicly rejected his representation of the Covid-19 rules. The Irish Times reported an additional undisclosed social visit in Roscommon. Members of the public came forward with additional sightings of Hogan in public places from the first day he arrived back in Ireland from Brussels.

Deeply damaged

Nevertheless, Hogan continued to defend his account on Wednesday, spending “hours” in discussion with his boss.

When he finally revealed the full details of his movements in Ireland, it painted a bad picture.

By then, von der Leyen’s trust in her commissioner had been deeply damaged. Continuing to work together seemed unfeasible. “His decision to resign was his and his alone,” a source close to Hogan said.

There was a sense of regret that it perhaps could all have been avoided if only he had disclosed the full story to begin with. But even allies acknowledged that it was not possible for him to stay on.

“This kind of behaviour is emblematic of an Ireland that no longer exists,” one official said.

Hogan is not thought to have had as easy a relationship with von der Leyen as with her predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker. His decision to float himself as a potential candidate to lead the World Trade Organisation earlier this summer did not help.

The president’s statement on Hogan’s resignation had a chilly note. “I respect his decision,” she wrote on Twitter as the news broke. “I am grateful for his work as a trade commissioner and a member of my team.”

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