It’s been headline news for the last week in Ireland; the controversy of the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner, and the TDs and Senators present amongst it’s 81 guests. The dinner took place just one day after the Government introduced new restrictions to combat the spread of Covid-19, which has taken over 1,700 lives in the country. The Garda have yet to determine whether the event breached Covid-19 regulations or not
As you would imagine, this event has angered many in Ireland who feel betrayed by those in leadership. The so-called ‘golf-gate disaster’ felt like a slap in the face after months of struggles and separation.
My lovely Dad died in Ireland during lockdown. His sons couldn’t be there with him, or with our Mum during his funeral. My own son is a doctor & couldn’t attend his beloved Grandad’s memorial in the UK because of quarantine. So nothing about #golfgate is even faintly amusing (1)
— Louise Kenny (@louiseckenny) August 24, 2020
In the wake of the public uproar we’ve seen the resignation of the minister of Agriculture and the Leas-Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, and six Senators, all who attended, have lost their party whip.
The spotlight, however, has more recently turned to Phil Hogan – the European Commissioner for Trade, and whether he should follow in his colleague’s footsteps. But how and why can Hogan get away in-spite of immediate calls for resignation, in the same way that other TD and Senators in attendance did? Why is it that the Taoiseach cannot fire him? And what actually is his role – the European Commissioner for Trade? To understand, we need to do a quick history and EU politics lesson.
Who is Phil Hogan, and how did he become the European Commissioner for Trade?
Hogan started his political career as the Fine Gael TD for the constituency of Carlow–Kilkenny. He then moved up the parliamentary ranks, first serving as the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, and then as Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government.
It was in 2014 when he was nominated to join the European Commission. He first served as the Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, before being handed the portfolio and position of Commissioner for Trade in 2019.
What is the European Commission?
The European Commission is the executive branch of the European Union that drafts EU legislation, at the request of the EU parliament. It can draft legislation, of its own initiative, but they will remain words on paper until the EU parliament votes the legislation into power.
Each member state of the EU suggests a candidate to become the EU Commissioner nominated from their home state. The European Parliament then approves (or disapproves) their suggestion, and then the European Council appoints the nominee.
Once the nominated candidate has become a Commissioner, however, they no longer report to or work for the country/nationality, but the European Commission and the principles of the EU. This means they are meant to leave all national political agenda at the door. They may be the Commissioner from their country, but they work for and serve the EU first.
Each Commissioner is given what is called a ‘portfolio’, which is essentially an area of responsibility. If a Commissioner serves a full term with a portfolio, and does a good job of it, they may be re-nominated into the Commission and given a more important portfolio. This is exactly the case with Phil Hogan, who now holds one of the most significant portfolios – Trade.
What does this have to do with whether or not Phil Hogan resigns as the European Commissioner for Trade?
Phil Hogan’s success as a politician and then as a Commissioner, has been incredibly beneficial for Ireland as a whole. Ireland has the good fortune, at this moment in history, of having a Commissioner acting as Trade Commissioner for the EU, making Ireland, by proxy, a key player not only in the EU, but in trade deals globally.
The Trade Commissioner, for example, will lead free trade negotiations with the UK if and when they commence after Brexit. Given Ireland’s close ties with the UK trade-wise, this is a critical series of negotiations for Ireland. Should Hogan go, the portfolio of Trade would no doubt go to a Commissioner from another country, who may not be as inclined to get Ireland the best deal it can.
In addition, should Hogan resign, there is hardly any doubt that his Irish replacement would not be given the same level of portfolio. Due to a simple lack of experience at the international political stage.
This all said, the President of the EU Commission Ursula Von der Leyen, has called Hogan to further explain his actions in regards to his attendance at the Oireachtas Golf Society dinner. Should allegations become more evident and clear proof of dismissal of Covid-19 regulations come to light, she is ultimately the one who will decide his fate.
So whilst it is completely understandable that sections of the Irish public, and government, feel betrayed, and therefore feel Hogan should resign, doing so would have longer term, dangerous, implications for Ireland’s future.