Golfgate: Phil Hogan's COVID-19 breach calls into question clout of EU Commission's code of conduct

European Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan speaks during a media conference at EU headquarters in Brussels, Monday, April 8, 2019.
European Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan speaks during a media conference at EU headquarters in Brussels, Monday, April 8, 2019. Copyright Virginia Mayo/AP
By Christopher Pitchers
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Is the EU's code of conduct fit for purpose? The case of Irish Commissioner Phil Hogan is proving a test for the institution's rule book.


EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan is under pressure to resign after it was revealed that he broke Irish coronavirus rules last week when attending a golf society gala in Galway.

Hogan has apologised but he remains in his job. 

That is in contrast to Ireland's agriculture minister, Dara Calleary, who quit over his attendance of the event last week, which came just a day after Dublin announced a tightening of coronavirus restrictions. 

So what are the ethical standards that commissioners like Hogan are held to that have so far allowed him to keep his job? 

"European Commissioners are independent from their governments," explained Alberto Alemanno, a professor of European law at HEC Paris, an international business school. 

"They are not national politicians, but, in their actions, they are subject to specific rules which require them to observe the highest standard of ethical conduct and respect the dignity of their office. 

"So the question today is whether breaching — as Phil Hogan apparently did — a COVID restriction qualifies as a breach of such ethical rules."

The Code of Conduct for the Members of the European Commission is vague on ethical breaches, which is why there is a conflict over the issue.

The interpretation of what defines "integrity, dignity" and the "highest standards of ethical conduct" is left completely open to the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen. 

There's no doubt though that coronavirus measures have put the institution's ethical standards into uncharted territory.

However, Von der Leyen's spokeswoman said any talk of sanctions is premature.

"It is absolutely premature to discuss about any sanctioning or anything like that... we would also need to understand the conditions in which these moves took place," Dana Spinant, the European Commission's deputy chief spokeswoman, told reporters.

If the decision lies ultimately with the Commission President, then who are EU Commissioners actually accountable to? Alemanno says to all European Citizens.

However, he says that the current European ethics system "only holds them accountable vis-a-vis the President of the European Commission who is their boss in a way". This makes the president the only one who can interpret and enforce those ethical rules.

"We need to set up an independent ethics body urgently, as promised by Ursula von der Leyen when she came to power a year ago," said Alemanno.

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