UK Bids To Reassure Over Northern Ireland After Biden Warning

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street in central London on June 24, 2020, to attend Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs)a at the House of Commons – ˜ (Photo by Ben STANSALL / AFP)


Britain on Thursday reaffirmed its backing for Northern Ireland’s peace accord, after White House candidate Joe Biden warned of potential fallout for a future UK-US trade deal from London’s Brexit manoeuvering.

“We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit,” Democrat Biden, who has often spoken passionately of his Irish roots, wrote on Twitter.

“Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said a contentious bill currently being debated by parliament was intended “precisely to make sure that the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement is upheld in all circumstances”.

“We continue to remain absolutely committed to no hard border and no border infrastructure between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland,” he told reporters.

The planned legislation — which Britain admits will override parts of the Brexit treaty — has provoked anger and concern among EU officials.

The proposed law would make unilateral changes to regulate trade with Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, if it cannot seal a post-Brexit deal with the EU by the end of this year.

Brussels has threatened legal action if it is not withdrawn by the end of September and reminded Britain of its duty to uphold international treaty obligations.

Northern Ireland is set to remain bound by some EU rules to ensure its border with Ireland remains open — a key part of the 1998 peace deal that ended 30 years of violence.

But Johnson charges that the EU could carry out a food “blockade” between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, which would threaten peace and territorial integrity.

“We will continue to engage with our US partners on a bipartisan basis to ensure that our positions are understood,” Johnson’s spokesman said.

“The whole point of this, as the PM has set out, is to make sure the Belfast Good Friday Agreement is upheld.”

Biden’s strong words came as Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab visited Washington to try to allay US concerns about the impact of Britain’s departure from the European Union.

It followed a similar warning from Democratic House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo voiced confidence that Britain would find a “good outcome” in its standoff with the EU.

Prior to Biden’s intervention, the prime minister told MPs on Wednesday that his bill would “protect the peace process in Northern Ireland”.

“Possibly the vital importance of protecting the symmetry of the Good Friday Agreement is something that may have been lost so far in the presentation of this matter (in Washington),” he said.


UK PM Says He Has ‘Every Hope’ Of Avoiding No-Deal With EU

PM Johnson Says UK Anti-Racism Protests 'Hijacked By Extremists'
In this file photo taken on April 12, 2020 A handout image released by 10 Downing Street, shows Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he delivers a television address after returning to 10 Downing Street after being discharged from St Thomas’ Hospital, in central London on April 12, 2020. Pippa FOWLES / 10 Downing Street / AFP.


Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday said he had full confidence that Britain and the EU will avoid a cliff-edge “no deal” at the end of this year, but refused to back down on controversial new legislation.

“It’s not what this country wants (no deal) and it’s not what our EU friends and partners want from us. Therefore I have every hope and expectation that that will not be the outcome,” he told MPs.

However, Johnson said the European Union had “signally failed” to rule out a possible “blockade” between Britain and Northern Ireland if there is no deal, once a post-Brexit transition period ends on December 31.

“It’s always possible that I’m mistaken and perhaps they will prove my suspicions wrong” in ongoing talks, he said. But otherwise, the unilateral new bill to regulate the UK’s internal market was needed as an insurance policy.

“I prefer to have protections that guarantee the integrity of this country and protect against the potential rupture of the United Kingdom,” Johnson said.

A “no deal” outcome would see tariffs imposed by both sides, and on Britain’s side, they “would be quite formidable for some of their products”, he added.


EU Chief Pledges Green Recovery From COVID-19 Crisis

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a news conference with European Council President (not seen) following a virtual summit with Chinese President in Brussels, on June 22, 2020. YVES HERMAN / POOL / AFP
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a news conference with European Council President (not seen) following a virtual summit with Chinese President in Brussels, on June 22, 2020. YVES HERMAN / POOL / AFP.


EU chief Ursula von der Leyen vowed Wednesday that Europe would lead the global search for a coronavirus vaccine while rebuilding its shattered economy with a green recovery plan.

In her first annual State of the European Union address, the president of the European Commission also warned Britain not to breach its Brexit withdrawal treaty and Turkey not to threaten its neighbours.

And she recommitted to bloc to fighting racism and homophobia, denouncing the so-called “LGBT-free” zones set up by some towns in EU member state Poland, and urging member states to step up for refugees.

Addressing the European Parliament in Brussels, von der Leyen said: “The people of Europe are still suffering.”

In an implicit swipe at US President Donald Trump’s approach to the pandemic, von der Leyen said Europe would lead the world in the search for vaccine and support multilateral bodies like the World Health Organization.

“None of us will be safe until all of us are safe -– wherever we live, whatever we have,” she said. “Vaccine nationalism puts lives at risk. Vaccine cooperation saves them.”

Europe’s own economy has been devastated by the epidemic and the ensuing economic and social lockdowns, but von der Leyen touted her Commission’s green recovery plan as a way back.

She said that Brussels would urge member states to set a more ambitious goal of cutting greenhouse emissions by 55 percent by 2030, up from a target of 40 percent.

“For us, the 2030 target is ambitious, achievable, and beneficial for Europe” she added.

– ‘Hate is hate’ –

The new target is backed by EU powers France and Germany, as well as big business, but faces resistance from eastern member states that depend on coal for their energy needs.

EU leaders will attempt to agree on the target at summit in October, which would then need the approval of European Parliament, where a majority of MEPs want a still more ambitious target.

Von der Leyen said that 30 percent of spending from the 750-billion-euro ($890-billion) plan would be devoted to climate-friendly projects and financed through so-called green bonds.

In a broadside aimed at Poland’s populist government, von der Leyen also declared that so-called LGBT-free zones have “no place in our union.”

“I will not rest when it comes to building a union of equality… a union where you can be who you are and love who you want — without fear of recrimination or discrimination,” she said.

A number of Polish towns have declared themselves “LGBT ideology free zones”, and President Andrzej Duda has compared the struggle for equality to communism in terms of the alleged threat it poses to national values.

Brussels has denounced this stance before, but von der Leyen’s speech went further as she vowed to push EU member states to recognise adoptions by same-sex couples across the bloc.

“If you are parent in one country, you are parent in every country,” she said.

To applause, von der Leyen also re-committed her European Commission to the fight against racism.

“Hate is hate — and no one should have to put up with it,” she said, vowing to use the EU budget to address discrimination in employment, housing and health care and to appoint an anti-racism coordinator.

The 61-year-old former German defence minister also warned Turkey against trying to bully Greece and Cyprus, as tensions grow over energy reserves in the eastern Mediterranean.

– Hopes fade –

Von der Leyen said Ankara was a key partner doing important work hosting refugees, but stressed “none of this is justification for attempts to intimidate its neighbours”.

And she had a stark warning for another troublesome neighbour, Britain, which she warned was threatening the peace in Northern Ireland by trying to override its Brexit withdrawal agreement.

The row over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attempt to pass a law to override the divorce pact has also overshadowed talks to reach a trade deal before the end of the year, when it leaves the EU single market.

“With every day that passes, chances for a timely agreement do start to fade,” she said.

The withdrawal agreement “guarantees our citizens rights, financial interests, the integrity of the single market and crucially, the Good Friday Agreement,” she said.

The European Union and Britain “jointly agreed it was the best and only way to ensure peace on the island of Ireland. And we will never backtrack on that,” von der Leyen said.


EU Reserves 200 Million More COVID-19 Vaccines

European Union, Ogbonnaya Onu, Science and technology


The European Commission announced Wednesday it has reached a deal with a sixth pharmaceutical firm, this time BioNTech-Pfizer, to reserve a further 200 million doses of a potential coronavirus vaccine.

“Our chances to develop and deploy a safe and effective vaccine have never been higher, both for Europeans here at home, or for the rest of the world,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said.

“To defeat coronavirus anywhere, we need to defeat it everywhere.”

Brussels has previously signed deals with Sanofi-GSK, Johnson & Johnson, Curevac, Moderna and with AstraZeneca to be ready to procure doses quickly if and when any of the companies develop a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine.

“We are optimistic that among these candidates there will be a safe and effective vaccine against Covid-19 to help us defeat this pandemic,” the EU health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, said.

In a statement, BioNTech said the agreement includes an option for another 100 million doses.

Deliveries could start as soon as the end of 2020, if the labs successfully clear the various tests phases.

“We have activated our supply chain, most importantly our site in Belgium, and are starting to manufacture so that our vaccine would be available as soon as possible, if our clinical trials prove successful and regulatory approval is granted” said Albert Bouria, chairman and chief executive of Pfizer.

Labs around the world are racing to produce a vaccine to help end the worst health crisis in over a century.

More than 200 candidate vaccines are currently being developed with roughly two dozen at the stage of clinical trials with human volunteers.

Countries have also been scrambling to ensure they have sufficient doses, with the world’s wealthiest nations making pre-orders worth billions to secure deliveries even before the vaccines have completed tests.

Amid concern US President Donald Trump will pressure regulators to approve a vaccine ahead of the presidential election in November, the CEOs of nine companies — including BioNTech and Pfizer — this week pledged to “uphold the integrity of the scientific process”.

Specifically, the companies said they would only seek emergency authorisations for vaccines “after demonstrating safety and efficacy through a Phase 3 clinical study that is designed and conducted to meet requirements of expert regulatory authorities such as FDA,” the US Food and Drug Administration.


UK Under Fire As Brexit Trade Talks Resume With EU

An official hangs a Union Jack next to an European Union flag at EU Headquarters in Brussels on October 17, 2019, ahead of a European Union Summit on Brexit. Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP.


UK and EU negotiators on Tuesday resumed Brexit talks, after warnings last-minute changes to domestic legislation risked derailing the process, threatened peace in Northern Ireland and even a showcase UK-US trade deal.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has angered EU officials by insisting there was now an “unforeseen” risk that Northern Ireland would be cut off from the rest of the United Kingdom.

His proposal for “limited” changes to domestic legislation sparked concern London could renege on the treaty it signed with the EU that allowed Britain’s departure from the bloc.

His comments in the Daily Telegraph stood in sharp contrast to his boast that the Withdrawal Agreement was a “fantastic moment” when he signed it in January.

Britain left the 27-member EU on January 31 but remains bound by its rules until December 31 as it tries to thrash out the terms of a new trading relationship.

Both sides agree a deal must be struck by an EU summit in mid-October. But divisions remain on totemic issues such as state subsidies for industry and fishing rights.

Irish prime minister Micheal Martin said he was “concerned about the lateness” of London’s proposed changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol, a key plank of the agreement.

“The Withdrawal Agreement is an international treaty and we expect the UK government to implement and to adhere to what was agreed,” he told the Irish Examiner newspaper.

“We trust them to do so or they would render the talks process null and void.”

– Reopening old wounds –

Martin ruled out the return of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, a key part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended 30 years of violence over British rule in the province.

Northern Ireland will have Britain’s only land border with the EU, and the Brexit protocol means the territory will continue to follow some of the bloc’s rules to ensure the frontier remains open.

Johnson’s spokesman insisted the government remained fully behind the Good Friday pact, arguing the planned legislative changes were a “safety net” to ensure a smooth passage for goods going to and from Northern Ireland after January 1.

But the EU, and anti-Brexit parties in Northern Ireland and Britain, fear Johnson is setting the stage to jettison the transition talks and go its own way, whatever the economic cost.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier vowed to interrogate his British counterpart, David Frost, about the plans when they meet from Tuesday afternoon.

“Everything that has been signed must be respected,” the Frenchman said.

Heading into the meeting, which lasts until Thursday, Frost warned: “We need to see more realism from the EU about our status as an independent country”.

Barnier last week underlined that full implementation of prior deals was “the only way to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions”.

“And, of course, it is a precondition for us -– the EU and the UK -– to be able to forge a meaningful partnership built on trust.”

– Shock in US –

The government is due to submit the changes to parliament on Wednesday, with warnings it will breach international law if it overrode the Withdrawal Agreement.

Tim Bale, deputy director of the UK In A Changing Europe research group, suggested the move could be a “negotiating ploy” to put pressure on Brussels.

The Attorney General’s Office though, confirmed the head of the government’s legal department had resigned over the changes, while US politicians also warned of repercussions.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last year that any British backsliding on Northern Ireland would mean no US-UK trade agreement.

Democratic congressman Brendan Boyle on Tuesday agreed, saying it would have “consequences well beyond trust dealings with the EU”.

It would be “very difficult to enter into a trade negotiation with a party that would have just ripped up a very important agreement to us”, he told BBC radio.

“They might just turn around and use the same tactic against you.”


Ireland Loses EU Trade Job After COVID-19 Breach

People employ social distancing as they queue at shops in Dublin City centre in Ireland on May 18, 2020. PAUL FAITH / AFP
People employ social distancing as they queue at shops in Dublin City centre in Ireland on May 18, 2020. PAUL FAITH / AFP.


Ireland lost the EU’s coveted top trade job on Tuesday, paying the price for mistakes made by Phil Hogan, who resigned after breaking coronavirus guidelines.

Instead, the post of trade commissioner now goes to EU veteran Valdis Dombrovskis, a former Latvian prime minister who is seen as a steady pair of hands for one of the bloc’s most sensitive jobs.

Ireland, however, did better than expected in the reshuffle, with the important financial services portfolio going to the country’s new commissioner, senior MEP Mairead McGuinness, the EU said.

With the post, McGuinness becomes a key regulator of banking in Europe and will help determine the role of the City of London in the EU’s future ties with the UK.

“Congratulations to @MaireadMcGMEP on her appointment as European Commissioner in an important financial portfolio,” tweeted Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin.

Hogan, one of the bloc’s most senior officials and a powerful force in Brexit talks, quit last month after a week-long stream of revelations about his whereabouts during a visit to Ireland.

In a scandal known as Golfgate, the Irish government said Hogan flouted a trio of coronavirus guidelines during the trip, although the former commissioner himself insisted he broke no laws.

He also attended a parliamentary golf club dinner on August 19, in breach of coronavirus restrictions on social gathering numbers announced just 24 hours earlier in a bid to curb a surge in cases.

An outburst of public anger in Ireland persuaded EU chief Ursula von der Leyen to ask Hogan to step down, forcing the Irish government to put forward new candidates for the job.

Dombrovskis had already been in the EU Commission under Jean-Claude Juncker since 2014 and was promoted to executive vice president by von der Leyen last year.

The role of trade commissioner is one of the hardest in the EU executive, challenged in recent years by the protectionism of US President Donald Trump and tensions with China.

The occupant of the post will also have to handle rising opposition to trade deals by European voters who have growing doubt on the merits of globalisation championed by Brussels.

The reshuffle still needs the final approval of European Parliament.


EU Warns Serbia Over Jerusalem Embassy Move

European Union, Ogbonnaya Onu, Science and technology



The EU voiced “serious concern and regret” on Monday over Belgrade’s commitment to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, casting a shadow over the resumption of Serbia-Kosovo talks.

President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia and Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti are to meet in Brussels for a second round of EU-brokered face-to-face talks to resolve disputes two decades after clashing in war.

The meeting follows a high-profile summit at the White House where Vucic and Hoti signed statements agreeing to measures to improve economic relations — and in Serbia’s case, committing to moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The EU is still committed to the so-called “two state solution” in which Jerusalem will be the capital of both Israel and a future Palestinian state, and its own diplomatic mission is in Tel Aviv.

The bloc expects prospective members like Serbia to align with its foreign policy positions.

“In this context any diplomatic steps that could call into question the EU’s common position on Jerusalem are a matter of serious concern and regret,” EU foreign affairs spokesman Peter Stano told reporters in Brussels.

Breaking with longstanding diplomatic practice, President Donald Trump’s administration in December 2017 recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the US embassy to the city.

– Long-running dispute

Washington touted the agreements signed by Vucic and Hoti on Friday as a major breakthrough, but on Monday the two leaders issued a joint statement giving a far more cautious read.

“The recently agreed documents in Washington DC, building on previous dialogue-related commitments undertaken by the two parties, could provide a useful contribution to reaching a comprehensive, legally binding agreement on normalisation of relations,” the statement said.

In one of Europe’s most intractable disputes, Serbia has refused to recognise Kosovo’s declaration of independence since the province broke away in the bloody 1998-99 war that was ended only by a NATO bombing campaign against Serb troops.

Both Kosovo and Serbia are facing mounting pressure from the West to resolve the impasse which is seen as crucial to either side joining the EU.

More than 13,000 people died in the war, mostly Kosovo Albanians, who form a majority in the former province.

One key question is diplomatic recognition for Kosovo — five of the EU’s 27 countries do not acknowledge its independence.

The two sides have been in EU-led talks for a decade to normalise their relationship, but little progress has been made, with a raft of agreements concluded in 2013 yet to be fully implemented, and the previous round of negotiations broke down in 2018 after a series of diplomatic tit-for-tats.

Vucic and Hoti resumed face-to-face talks in Brussels in July but the effort got off to a frosty start, with the Serbian leader accusing Pristina of trying to “blackmail” Belgrade.

EU diplomatic chief Josep Borrell, who is hosting the Brussels talks along with the EU’s special representative Miroslav Lajcak, said Monday’s meeting would focus on “non-majority communities and the settlement of mutual financial claims on property”.

“Both topics are very sensitive and very important for the future relationship between Kosovo and Serbia and for the everyday life of their people,” Borrell said.


EU Chief Warns UK Must Respect Brexit Withdrawal Deal

Newly elected European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gestures as she attends a news conference after a vote on her election at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France on July 16, 2019. FREDERICK FLORIN / AFP.


EU leader Ursula von der Leyen warned Monday that Britain is legally obliged to respect the Brexit withdrawal agreement, which must form the basis of bilateral relations going forward.

“I trust the British government to implement the Withdrawal Agreement, an obligation under international law and prerequisite for any future partnership,” the president of the European Commission said.

Von der Leyen issued her warning after The Financial Times reported that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is planning legislation to override parts of the withdrawal treaty that Britain and the EU agreed last year.

The report cited three people close to the plans as saying a bill to be put before parliament this week would undermine agreements relating to Northern Ireland customs and state aid.

In response, Downing Street said only that it was still “working hard to resolve outstanding issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol” but was considering “fall-back options”.

But Von Der Leyen warned that, in Brussels’ view, the clause — which would see the British province continue to follow some EU rules while maintaining an open border with Ireland — is essential.

The protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, she tweeted, “is essential to protect peace and stability on the island and the integrity of the single market.”


EU Urges Russia Not To Intervene In Belarus

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas talk before a press statement on August 28, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. Kay Nietfeld / POOL / AFP
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas talk before a press statement on August 28, 2020 in Berlin, Germany.
Kay Nietfeld / POOL / AFP


The EU urged Russia on Friday not to intervene in Belarus after President Vladimir Putin vowed military support for the country’s embattled leader.

As EU foreign ministers meeting in Berlin discussed the crisis, President Alexander Lukashenko — facing unprecedented protests calling for him to quit — accused the West of trying to topple him in order to weaken Moscow.

Meanwhile neighbouring Ukraine, which saw its own pro-Russian leader toppled after bloody protests in 2014, has offered refuge to Belarusians fleeing a regime crackdown.

The EU has rejected the official results of an August 9 presidential poll in Belarus, which saw Lukashenko re-elected with 80 percent of votes, and is preparing sanctions against his regime for electoral fraud and a violent crackdown on opposition protesters.

Putin on Thursday said he stood ready to send in his military to stabilise Belarus after weeks of huge demonstrations calling for Lukashenko, often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator”, to quit and hold new elections.

“I have heard many times from Russia the mantra that this is a domestic internal affair for Belarus and they do not want external interference. I suppose it’s also valid for themselves,” EU foreign affairs high representative Josep Borrell said.

“It is solely for the Belarusian people to determine their own future,” he added, urging Russia to “respect the wishes and democratic choices of the Belarusian people.”

French President Emmanuel Macron was blunter, telling reporters in Paris that the “worst thing would be Russian intervention” in Belarus.

There “could be no repeat of what happened in Ukraine”, Macron added.

After an uprising in 2014, Russia annexed the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and pro-Moscow forces declared breakaway republics in Ukrainian regions in the east.

‘Springboard to Russia’

Putin on Thursday also called on the Minsk authorities and the opposition to “find a way out” of the crisis peacefully, but the threat of military intervention by the Kremlin has raised the spectre of the crisis on the EU’s doorstep taking a darker turn.

Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet state for 26 years, renewed his claims that the West wanted to see the back of him for its own ends.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to Rossiya 24 TV Channel at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on August 27, 2020. Mikhail Klimentyev / SPUTNIK / AFP
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to Rossiya 24 TV Channel at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on August 27, 2020. Mikhail Klimentyev / SPUTNIK / AFP


“Belarus is just a springboard to Russia, as always,” he said, according to the state news agency Belta.

“Unlike Hitler, who sent his army to Moscow, they are trying to destroy the government in place here and replace it with a new one that will ask another country for military assistance and deploy troops.”

EU foreign ministers meeting in Berlin gave their backing to a list of some 20 individuals to be hit with asset freezes and travel bans for their role in rigging the Belarus election or cracking down on demonstrators.

Borrell said the list would encompass “individuals at high political level”, but it looks unlikely to include Lukashenko himself, despite calls from some countries for him to be targeted.

‘Deeply alarming’

The EU is supporting offers by the OSCE to broker a negotiated end to the crisis and hitting Lukashenko in person is seen as counterproductive to these efforts.

The OSCE on Friday described the post-election violence in Belarus as “deeply alarming” and called on Minsk to accept its offer to support dialogue and avoid a “nightmare”.

The current OSCE chair, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, said the sooner dialogue started “the better it is for everyone”.

Macron said Putin had told him Russia was open to OSCE mediation but Lukashenko was opposed.

“He (Putin) has to make efforts to help us in this direction,” the French president added.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Belarusians seeking to enter “Ukraine in an attempt to flee the crisis” would receive entry permits from his country’s border guards.

He said they will be given preferential treatment and be exempt from a month-long entry ban over spiking coronavirus cases.

The demonstrations that erupted in Belarus after the election and the violent police crackdown that followed have prompted comparisons with Ukraine’s pro-Western uprising in 2014.

Lukashenko’s notorious security services violently broke up peaceful protests after the vote, arresting nearly 7,000 people in a clampdown that sparked widespread allegations of torture and abuse in police custody.

Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya fled to neighbouring EU country Lithuania after claiming she beat the 65-year-old leader and calling for the protests.




EU Trade Chief Resignation Sparks Successor Scramble

(FILES) In this file photo taken on September 30, 2019, EU commissioner for Trade Phil Hogan arrives for his hearing at the European Parliament in Brussels. – The EU’s trade commissioner Phil Hogan is to resign, a source told AFP on August 26, 2020, after breaching coronavirus guidelines on a trip to his native Ireland to attend a parliamentary golf society dinner. Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP.


Ireland on Thursday scrambled to assemble potential candidates to succeed EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan after his resignation for breaching coronavirus guidelines.

Hogan, one of the bloc’s most senior officials and a powerful force in Brexit talks, quit on Wednesday after a week-long stream of revelations caused rising public anger.

European Commission executive vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis of Latvia has stepped up to take over temporarily.

Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who spoke to Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin by phone, asked Dublin to submit one man and one woman as candidates to succeed Hogan.

Her spokesman said she wanted a replacement “rapidly”.

Von der Leyen meanwhile issued a stern warning to other commissioners to comply with Covid-19 rules.

As “Europeans make sacrifices and accept painful restrictions, I expect the members… to be particularly vigilant about compliance with applicable national or regional rules or recommendations”, she said in a statement.

– Rumoured replacements –

Martin told Ireland’s state broadcaster RTE on Thursday that he would meet his government coalition partners to discuss Hogan’s replacement.

He refused to be drawn on specific names, even as rumours swirled linking past prime ministers, current cabinet ministers and European parliamentary officials to the job.

But he added: “It’s fair to say that at this stage our shared objective will be that a person of very, very high calibre will be nominated by the Irish government.”

Yet there is no guarantee Ireland will retain the trade portfolio, which is regarded as a key asset protecting the Republic’s interests during Brexit trade talks with Britain.

Among those touted in the Irish media as potential successors are former prime minister Leo Varadkar, Foreign Minister Simon Coveney and Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe.

But all three hold key positions in Martin’s two-months-old coalition government, and Donohoe was recently appointed head of the eurozone group of finance ministers.

Martin is also considered unlikely to want to weaken his administration, which has already been hit by a series of resignations and is facing a surge in coronavirus cases.

RTE raised European Parliament vice-president Mairead McGuinness and former deputy prime minister turned MEP Frances Fitzgerald as possible replacements for Hogan.

They were seen as figures who would not destabilise the coalition by prompting an unwelcome by-election.

Other names said to be in the frame include the former EU ambassador to the United States, David O’Sullivan, and former prime minister Enda Kenny.

The Irish Times, citing party sources, speculated candidates will come from the centre-right Fine Gael party Hogan served as an Irish lawmaker under the terms of the coalition deal.

It is thought the government may have already had a plan to replace Hogan — a former Irish government minister and EU agriculture commissioner — after he made a failed run for the head of the World Trade Organization in June.

– Covid-19 breaches –

On Wednesday the Irish government said 60-year-old Hogan’s resignation was “the correct course of action”.

Martin piled pressure on Hogan to quit after it emerged he travelled through a county in a local lockdown and flouted guidelines for a 14-day quarantine on arrival in Ireland.

Hogan also attended a parliamentary golf club dinner on August 19 in breach of coronavirus restrictions on social gatherings announced just 24 hours earlier.

The sporting evening was attended by around 80 people — including a cabinet minister, a supreme court judge and lawmakers from Ireland’s upper and lower houses of parliament.

It is being investigated by police under legislation limiting gatherings to 50 and has prompted a series of high-level resignations, including agriculture minister Dara Calleary and deputy Senate chair Jerry Buttimer.

Hogan initially declined to apologise for his attendance at the event and details of his travels across Ireland emerged fitfully.

Embarrassment was compounded when it was revealed he was pulled over by an Irish police officer for using his phone while driving.

“I deeply regret that my trip to Ireland … caused such concern, unease and upset,” Hogan said in his resignation statement.


EU Trade Commissioner Apologises For COVID-19 Breach

European Union, Ogbonnaya Onu, Science and technology


EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan apologised on Sunday as he faced calls to resign for attending an Irish parliamentary golf society dinner which breached COVID-19 guidelines.

The event — attended by a cabinet minister, a supreme court judge and swathes of lawmakers — was held on Wednesday, just 24 hours after the government announced new coronavirus restrictions.

Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin urged Hogan, a former Irish government minister, to “consider his position” after revelations he was one of the 82 attendees at the dinner.

In the face of a fresh surge in cases, Dublin specifically said there should be no “formal or informal events or parties” at hotel restaurants.

The dinner has sparked a series of resignations at the top tier of Irish politics and prompted Martin to decide Sunday to recall parliament.

“I wish to apologise fully and unreservedly for attending,” Hogan said in a statement.

“I acknowledge my actions have touched a nerve for the people of Ireland, something for which I am profoundly sorry.”

Irish Agriculture Minister Dara Calleary and deputy chair of parliament’s upper chamber Jerry Buttimer have both already resigned for attending the event.

Hogan said he had spoken to Martin and respected his views, and said he had been reporting to the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

Later on Sunday, a Commission spokesman said von der Leyen was “following the situation closely” and had ordered Hogan to prepare a report detailing the event.

“It is important that facts are established in detail to carefully assess the situation,” the spokesman said.

Hogan previously said he had been assured the dinner would comply with government coronavirus guidelines and did not offer an apology.

On Saturday, Martin and deputy prime minister Leo Varadkar — the head of Fine Gael, the party for which Hogan previously served — said in a joint statement that “the commissioner’s apology came late” and that he needed to “give a full account and explanations of his actions”.

The Irish Examiner newspaper — which revealed details of the dinner on Thursday — said guests sat at tables of 10 in breach of coronavirus guidelines, and organisers erected a room divider in a bid to skirt legislation banning gatherings of more than 50.

Police on Friday said they had opened an investigation into the event for alleged breaches of that same legislation.


Sweden Signs On To EU’s AstraZeneca COVID-19 Vaccine

Karin Hildebrand, a doctor in an intensive care unit (ICU) in Stockholm’s Sodersjukhuset hospital walks in a corridor before treating patients with COVID-19 on June 11, 2020, during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.  Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP.


Sweden said Thursday it had agreed to take part in the European Union’s deal with pharmaceutical group AstraZeneca to secure a supply of a coronavirus vaccine as soon as it is discovered.

The deal means Sweden, a country of 10.3 million people, would get around six million doses of the vaccine in an initial phase, and two million more in a later phase.

“Within two weeks we will have three more (vaccine) agreements to consider, and after that there will be another three or four in a month or two. We are negotiating with everyone to make sure we are covered,” Sweden’s national vaccine coordinator Richard Bergstrom told reporters.

AstraZeneca said in July that its vaccine, developed together with the University of Oxford, should be available by the end of the year.

Sweden, which has made headlines for its softer approach to the new coronavirus, said on Thursday it had 85,810 confirmed cases and 5,805 deaths.