The European Union’s top trade official, Phil Hogan, has just been forced to resign. Together with a minister in Ireland’s government and other politicians, he attended a golf dinner last week that appears to have broken strict Irish quarantine rules. The minister was quickly forced to resign, but Hogan managed to hang on for several days. The story of why he wasn’t immediately sacked or forced to resign tells us a lot about how E.U. politics works.

Hogan broke Ireland’s coronavirus rules

Hogan’s political troubles began when he attended a dinner organized by a golfing group associated with Ireland’s Parliament. A number of current and former politicians and officials attended the dinner, which reportedly broke Ireland’s strict coronavirus rules banning gatherings of 50 or more people. When news of the dinner leaked, there was an outpouring of angry public commentary from Irish citizens, who, like people elsewhere, have endured months of restrictions on travel and social life. Ireland’s agriculture minister, who was at the dinner, resigned swiftly, but Hogan declined to follow suit, initially making a statement that blamed the dinner’s organizers.

Unfortunately for Hogan, the golf dinner was only the beginning of the story. People entering Ireland are supposed to self-isolate for 14 days to minimize the risk of coronavirus spreading. Furthermore, specific travel restrictions were recently applied to parts of the Irish Midlands, where there were a number of coronavirus clusters. It soon became clear that Hogan had traveled extensively across Ireland during the 14-day period, including within the restricted zone. Hogan claimed in an official memorandum to the European Commission president that he no longer had to self-isolate after the first few days he spent in Ireland because he had received a negative coronavirus test result. He also argued he had a “reasonable excuse” for entering the restricted zone.

However, Ireland’s Department of Health disputed his claim that he didn’t have to self-isolate after the coronavirus test. Even worse, new information emerged this morning about an apparent witness who has claimed Hogan ate at a restaurant the evening he arrived in Ireland, instead of self-isolating as he said he did. Another person said Hogan was seen in public areas during the same period. Hogan’s spokesperson declined to comment on the allegations, but it became increasingly clear over the day that his position was unsustainable.

The Irish government couldn’t sack him directly

After initial indecision, Ireland’s government indicated that it wanted Hogan to resign. The problem was that it didn’t have the authority to force his resignation.

This speaks to the complicated politics of the European Commission, the E.U.'s executive arm. National governments nominate their preferred candidates to the commission. However, these candidates, once they take office, are E.U. officials under the responsibility of the president of the commission and are supposed to care about Europe rather than their country of origin. As political scientists have shown, that is often a polite fiction. Commissioners see defending their home countries’ interests as an important part of their job.

However, polite fictions can have consequences. In this case, they gave Hogan some initial room for maneuver. Because he helped defend Ireland’s interests in an important policy area (setting trade policy), the Irish government initially didn’t want him to leave. It has no guarantee whatsoever that his replacement will get a similarly influential position. Because Hogan was an E.U. official, the Irish government had a plausible-sounding excuse for inaction: It had no authority to sack him — his boss was the president of the European Commission.

Eventually, however, the government decided that Hogan was becoming a serious political liability, as new stories kept on emerging that seemed to contradict his previous explanations. Ireland’s taoiseach (prime minister)complained of the “significant difficulty for the Government in terms of the changing narrative as this story has unfolded”

Clearly, Hogan finally figured out that his position was unsustainable. Now, the Irish government has to decide on a new candidate for Commission, without knowing whether the new Commissioner will retain the trade portfolio, or whether von der Leyen will take the opportunity to reshuffle the Commission. The Irish government could increase its chances of retaining the portfolio through nominating a candidate with an international reputation, such as Simon Coveney, the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, but that could entail further domestic political complications and difficult internal negotiations in a government run by a coalition of three parties which is wobbling thanks to this scandal.