Saturday 19 April 2014

Dan O'Brien: Kenny the contender could be accidental EU president

Our bailout exit has made the Taoiseach a potential candidate for a European post, writes Dan O'Brien

Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Taoiseach Enda Kenny

TONIGHT Enda Kenny will address the nation. He will bask in the national and international glow of leading the country from bailout ignominy. It is a triumph for the Taoiseach and his Government and one that nobody would begrudge him.

But one consequence of all this is that, in just under one year from now, a new Taoiseach may well be settling into Government Buildings.

Change at the top is a real possibility because Enda Kenny is now being spoken of seriously in Europe as a candidate for an EU presidency role next year.

Herman Van Rompuy, the charisma-free Belgian who is currently president of the European council, and who is barred by the rules from doing a third stint in that role, is due to hand over to his successor next December 1.

The Taoiseach is firmly on a long-list of potential candidates. In short, Kenny is a real contender. Heretofore, few observers of the Irish political scene have given much credence to the possibility of Kenny's appointment to a major international role.

This is in part because he is a home bird; in part because of his mediocre and patchy CV. But before looking in detail at whether Kenny really does have the skills, talents and ability to be offered a European presidency, consider the broader context.

That context includes the range of big European jobs up for grabs next year, next May's European Parliament elections and -- perhaps most relevant of all to Kenny's chances -- the tendency to appoint not the best available-person to top EU political appointments, but to plump for the person who is least unacceptable to the greatest number of countries.

Next year, all the three big European positions will change hands. They include Van Rompuy's job, which is mostly a chairman role for EU leaders when they get together for the ever-increasing number of summits they hold.

The second is the president of the European Commission. After 10 years, Jose Barroso is heading home to Portugal after declining to seek a third term. And the third position -- Europe's de facto foreign minister -- is held by Catherine Ashton, an ineffectual Briton who never had a chance of reappointment.

By pure coincidence, the grinding process of hammering out a deal on who gets these three jobs will start in earnest in Dublin, next March.

Then, the continent's conservatives will gather for a 3,000-person convention to decide their candidate for Barroso's job as head of the European Commission.

The anointed one will almost certainly go toe to toe with Martin Schulz -- currently the president of the European Parliament -- who is a shoo-in to be appointed as the European Socialist Democrats candidate for the job.

All this is new. The reason the parties are nominating candidates in advance is because they have agreed that next May's election should not only determine who takes seats in the European Parliament, but also which party gets the top job in the Commission.

If the centre-right gets most votes across the continent in May, then -- in all probability -- there will be a right-leaning Commission president. If the left gets most seats, their man or woman will take the biggest office in the Berlaymont.

That Kenny is hosting his "political family" of Christian democrats and assorted centre-rightists at the March convention has only added to the speculation that he might be unveiled as their candidate.

But the chances of Kenny, or any other sitting prime minister, accepting the nomination are limited. Why, after all, would anyone give up a national premiership with no certainty of gaining a European promotion?

That brings us to the second presidency job -- the one Van Rompuy will stand down from in less than a year.

That is unlikely to be decided until next Autumn -- and it is expected that the decision will be made in the time-honoured way -- with the 28 EU prime ministers haggling all night at a summit until white smoke is released at the crack of dawn, when they settle on the least bad candidate.

For any sitting prime minister, this process of selecting Van Rompuy's successor is a much more appealing prospect than running a continent-wide election campaign from March until May with no certainty of getting the job.

From Kenny's perspective, the job is also more appealing because it suits his skills-set, such as good chairing abilities, unlike the commission job.

That latter position requires a capacity for massive amounts of detailed knowledge of the complicated and technocratic EU stuff that sends most people to sleep, even seasoned politicians.

All that said, the Van Rompuy job does require smarts and some degree of policy literacy. Does Kenny have what it takes?

Many people thought him a man of little substance for a long period after he became Fine Gael leader. I did too, for a period (and I still do when forced to sit through any of his rambling and self-indulgent unscripted speeches which he laces with cliches and are riddles with non-sequiturs).

But what changed my mind was a lunch event in London a decade ago, when he was a guest speaker at an event co-hosted by the British Conservative Party and the German Christian Democrats (Angela Merkel's party).

Both parties have spent most of the past half-century in power and when they are in opposition (as they were at the time) they are hungry for policy ideas.

Some of their big beasts were in attendance at the London lunch. I expected them to rip Kenny apart when they quizzed him on policy matters. Instead, after delivering his set-piece speech fluently and competently, he handled the question-and-answer session remarkably well.

He was familiar with the details of policy issues and well able to hold his own. He may not have come across as a policy intellectual, but he more than acquitted himself.

There is no doubt he is already on the list of around 10 centre-right candidates, almost all of which are sitting or former prime ministers.

To some extent, he is on that list because all EU heads of government make it on to such lists unless they have obvious weakness, such as corruption allegations against them or if the administrations they lead have done badly.

Kenny has no obvious black marks against him. Having delivered the eurozone's first big success since its crisis began, by leading his country out of bailout on schedule and having made no obvious enemies who would veto him, he is very likely to be on the shortlist to succeed Van Rompuy.

However, party stalwarts think that becoming the first Fine Gael leader to win re-election since 1926 is the prize he eyes, not EU president.

But if, at 3am at a leader's summit next autumn, his fellow prime ministers turn to him, having ruled out all other candidates, and say he is the only person they can agree on to take the role, the pressure to accept may be irresistible.

One year from now, Kenny may end up as the accidental EU president.

Irish Independent

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