Varadkar ‘intends’ to stay as FG leader as search for Hogan successor intensifies

Ursula von der Leyen asks the Government to suggest a man and a woman as candidates

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has called on the Irish government to propose a man and a woman for the role of Irish commissioner in the wake of Phil Hogan's resignation. Video: European Commission

 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said his “intention” is to continue leading the Fine Gael party but has left the door open as to whether he would be one of the Government’s nominees to replace Phil Hogan as EU Trade Commissioner.

When asked by reporters if he would like the senior role in Brussels, Mr Varadkar replied: “My intention is to continue to lead my party, to work hard in my job as Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Trade and Employment, and to become Taoiseach again in 2022.”

However, when pressed further, and specifically asked “are you ruling yourself in or out”, all he would say is, “that’s my answer”.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has asked the Government to suggest a man and a woman as candidates to replace Mr Hogan.

On a visit to Limerick, Mr Varadkar was asked if he had regrets over the circumstances that led to Mr Hogan’s resignation.

“Of course I do, Phil’s a good colleague, a very good friend and somebody who I reappointed as Commissioner, because he did such a good job in his previous role,” Mr Varadkar replied.

“The situation developed as it did, he was given an opportunity to explain his whereabouts and his movements within Ireland and to confirm that he had been following the public health guidelines, and unfortunately over a period of days it transported that he had not.

“But, ultimately, this was a decision that was made by President von der Leyen, not by the Irish Government, but i think it was the right decision in the end. Of course, lots of regrets.”

Mr Varadkar did not call for others who attended the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner to resign, adding: “I think there’s a distinction between private citizens and public representatives but I do hope that the events of the last couple of days do in some way demonstrate that Ireland is a country where the rules and the laws and standards and guidelines do apply to everyone equally.”

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, was asked by reporters if Mr Varadkar was a good candidate for nomination for the EU Commissioner’s role, and replied: “Obviously he is a person of considerable calibre but, we haven’t discussed that.

“The bottom line here is the three leaders are going to meet to discuss this entire situation. Nothing has been discussed in terms of any particular individual, up to now, and we will have a meeting to discuss that.”

Mr Martin said he discussed the situation with Dr von der Leyen this morning, but that he had “at no stage” had he sought “to influence her in terms of any deliberations in relation to this matter”.

The Taoiseach said both he and Dr von der Leyen agreed that Mr Hogan “had made the correct decision” and that he would be holding a meeting Mr Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan to discuss nominations.

“It’s fair to say that our shared objective, that a person of very high calibre will be nominated by the Irish Government. The [EU Commission] president will be seeking two nominees, [and] in terms of the gender issue, we will look at that, and we will respond,” the Taoiseach added.

Mr Martin said Ireland was “very conscious” of “pressing” ahead with nominations and he was focussed on securing “a person of calibre to be nominated ultimately as a successor to Phil Hogan”.

The Taoiseach and Tánaiste were speaking to reporters at the announcement of 400 jobs at US pharmaceutical firm Regeneron in Limerick.

Earlier, Dr von der Leyen said that she had “respect” for Mr Hogan’s decision to resign, which came after days of discussions with him to establish his movements in Ireland in which it emerged he had not observed the 14-day period of self-isolation required for incoming travellers from Belgium.

“Over the past days I discussed with Phil Hogan about his movements in Ireland, in light of information that emerged regarding respect of public health guidelines in Ireland,” the president said.

Former European commissioner Phil Hogan and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Photograph: Stephanie Lecocq/EPA.
Former European commissioner Phil Hogan and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Photograph: Stephanie Lecocq/EPA.

“In the current circumstances 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 about compliance with applicable national or regional rules or recommendations.”

Dr von der Leyen said it was now up to the Irish Government to “present suitable candidates” to serve in the Commission for Ireland, and that she would ask for a man and a woman to be forward for her consideration.

Achieving a gender balance among the commissioners was a goal set by Dr von der Leyen when she took up her post at the end of last year.

Ireland is not guaranteed to retain the influential trade portfolio that Mr Hogan held as she can opt to reshuffle her cabinet, and this is understood to depend on the experience of the candidates put forward. Dr von der Leyen said she had not yet decided on the issue.

“At a later stage I will decide on the final allocation of portfolios in the college of commissioners,” she said.

In the interim, the trade brief will be managed by the Latvian official Valdis Dombrovskis, who is executive vice president of the European Commission.

Second chance

Meanwhile, former German MEP Elmar Brok has said that Phil Hogan deserved a second chance and he had been the “perfect” trade commissioner.

Speaking on RTÉ radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show Mr Brok said he very much regretted the resignation, but that nobody was so strong that they could not be replaced. “A second chance would have been a good thing.”

Mr Brok said he could not predict if Ireland would keep the trade portfolio and that Mr Hogan had been chosen “on purpose” for the role.

When asked about possible replacements, Mr Brok said former taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney or MEP Mairead McGuinness would be very strong candidates for the position.

“But, they have no experience as a commissioner, as Phil Hogan had – still, someone from that circle might give Ireland a chance of keeping the trade portfolio.”

Mr Brok added he hoped he could stay in personal contact with Mr Hogan and that the former commissioner could still play a role in public life. “He’s still a young man.”

Dublin MEP Barry Andrews said he expects Dr Von der Leyen to appoint a woman to the trade role because she is very ambitious to achieve gender balance in the Commission.

Speaking to RTÉ radio’s News at One Mr Andrews said the departure of Phil Hogan was “an enormous strategic loss for Ireland”.

It had been inevitable when Mr Hogan had been “too slow” to apologise and after he “stood over his misinterpretation” of the Covid guidelines.

Mr Andrews, who is a member of the Trade Commission, said it was a portfolio of enormous importance with “massive issues coming down the line.”

Mr Hogan’s appointment as Trade Commissioner had been “an enormous triumph” for Ireland, he added.

While he was against the appointment of “a technocrat”, if that was the cost, it would be worth it, he said.

Nobody would want their name to go forward and not be successful, he said of the possible nominees.