With Phil Hogan’s departure, Ursula von der Leyen bets on ethicsPOLITICO - Lili Bayer, Cristina Gonzalez and Maïa de la Baume - 28/08/20
Irishman’s exit shows the Commission president won’t tolerate the impression that her top team can act with impunity.
Ursula von der Leyen has raised the European Commission’s ethical bar — and that may make it harder to clear in future.
The EU’s powerful trade commissioner, Phil Hogan, announced his resignation late Wednesday after attending a golfing society dinner that broke Ireland’s coronavirus restrictions.
The longtime Irish politician’s reluctance to initially share full details of his trip — including with his own boss, the Commission president — fuelled tensions as previously-undisclosed details of his activities began surfacing in the press.
“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,” von der Leyen said in a statement Thursday morning following the resignation.
Formally, Hogan left of his own accord — but only after days of trying hard to hold on to his post and discussions with von der Leyen.
The controversy sparked debates in both Dublin and Brussels about the accountability of commissioners, who are nominated by their national governments but can only be asked to resign by the president of the Commission.
For some Commission officials and diplomats, von der Leyen’s approach marks a break with the past: The perception that senior Commission officials could act with impunity, safe in the knowledge that it was almost inconceivable they would be forced out.
“I think she does try to send a very strong signal that the rules apply to everybody,” said one Commission official.
But with tensions running high across the Continent over lockdowns, mask rules and travel restrictions, the Berlaymont is operating in a new political environment, where voters are especially sensitive to perceptions of double standards when it comes to coronavirus-related restrictions.
Lockdown transgressions by two senior scientific advisers in the U.K. led to their swift resignations and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to stick by his most senior aide, Dominic Cummings, after he broke coronavirus rules led to visceral public anger.
The political backlash following the so-called golfgate scandal in Ireland that eventually ended Hogan’s career had earlier led to the resignations of the agriculture minister and the deputy leader of Fianna Fáil. Six senators who attended the dinner also lost the party whip.
“If Irish politicians have had to step down … while an EU politician did not need to, that would have harmed the image of the EU,” said German Green MEP Daniel Freund.
“At some point it becomes a political liability if she protected him,” he said. “Under [former Commission President Jean-Claude] Juncker, Hogan would have been ‘our man for the agreement with U.K., we need him, if he goes I go’… now, there’s a political price to pay,” Freund said.
There is also a sense in the Berlaymont that in order to be taken seriously internationally, commissioners need to espouse the values they promote.
“Irrelevant of one’s view about Hogan’s overall performance, giving out this signal is crucial in such an event, especially due to the fact that we are dangerously sliding away from a rules-based world order, also or even mostly so in terms of international trade,” said a second Commission official.
“Not only in view of the Commission’s geopolitical interests but foremost due to Europe’s self-interest, this was a rather straightforward decision,” for von der Leyen, the official said.
Some officials also say that von der Leyen’s tough leadership style and tendency to keep a distance from commissioners, even those from her own political family — instead working primarily with a small group of confidants — has contributed to her willingness to see Hogan go.
The president “wanted to show her hard line” and that she is a “tough cookie,” said a third Commission official.
Some say though that Hogan’s departure could open a pandora’s box of extra scrutiny about ethical conduct. “I do not see that there are new standards created, but I would expect now a lot of questions about other commissioners and their holidays,” said a fourth Commission official.
Accountability advocates, meanwhile, say that the Hogan controversy shows von der Leyen should go even further.
“Golfgate will go into history as an Irish story with major repercussions all across the continent and beyond,” said Alberto Alemanno, professor of EU law at HEC Paris. “[Hogan’s resignation] showed the urgency of a reform of the EU ethics system,” he said.
“What this episode again demonstrates is the need to have a clearer and more robust ethics regime for the institutions, where investigations and sanctions for ethical breaches are carried out by an independent body,” said Nicholas Aiossa, deputy director and head of political integrity at Transparency International EU.
Whether von der Leyen hands such powers to anyone else remains to be seen, but following Hogan’s departure, her top team now knows they are now being held to a higher standard.