By Graham Fahy and John Chalmers
DUBLIN/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Phil Hogan quit as the EU's Trade Commissioner on Wednesday after days of pressure over allegations he breached COVID-19 guidelines during a trip to his native Ireland, saying it had become clear the controversy was a distraction from his work.
The forced exit of a heavyweight from the bloc's executive will be a credibility blow for the team led by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for less than a year.
The Commission will play a key role in pushing across the line a 750 billion-euro recovery fund for EU economies hammered by the coronavirus crisis, and Hogan himself had been making headway in fraught trade talks with the United States.
"It was becoming increasingly clear that the controversy concerning my recent visit to Ireland was becoming a distraction from my work as an EU Commissioner and would undermine my work in the key months ahead," Hogan said in a statement.
"I deeply regret that my trip to Ireland – the country that I have been so proud to represent as a public servant for most of my adult life - caused such concern, unease and upset."
Hogan attended a golf dinner last week that outraged the Irish public and led to the resignation of an Irish minister and the disciplining of several lawmakers. He had insisted on Tuesday that he adhered to all rules during the trip.
Hogan's political fortunes have faded fast. Only weeks ago, he had considered a bid to become the next director-general of the World Trade Organization. Hogan told RTE TV that "this could be the end of my political chapter."
The commissioner, who oversees trade policy for the world's biggest trading bloc, apologised three times for attending the event with some 80 others. But he came under pressure when it became clear he had not completed 14 days of self-isolation in line with the rules for incoming travellers to Ireland.
Hogan was asked by von der Leyen to provide a detailed account of his 20-day trip, which included three visits to the county of Kildare, two made, he said, to collect essential trade documents and his passport even though it was in a local lockdown.
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin and his deputy Leo Varadkar, leader of the Fine Gael party for whom Hogan served as a minister, said on Tuesday there were clear breaches of COVID-19 public health guidelines during Hogan's trip.
Martin and Varadkar said they believed Hogan had taken the correct course of action on Wednesday given the circumstances of the past week and that they would consider his replacement in due course.
Hogan's resignation, less than a year into his term in trade and six years after he was appointed Agriculture Commissioner, means Ireland will have to nominate a new representative to the commission. It may not retain the same brief if von der Leyen opts to reshuffle her team.
Potential nominees include Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, Mairead McGuinness, a vice president of the European Parliament, and Richard Bruton, an experienced former minister who missed out on a cabinet post in June, Irish newspapers have reported.
All three are member of Hogan and Varadkar's Fine Gael party.
(Reporting by Graham Fahy and Padraic Halpin in Dublin and by John Chalmers in Brussels; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Grant McCool)