Tuesday 24 October 2017

'I saw ghettos in Belfast in the 90s...a hard Border would be idiotic'

EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis with Darina Allen pictured at the fifth annual Ballymaloe LitFest. Photo: Joleen Cronin
EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis with Darina Allen pictured at the fifth annual Ballymaloe LitFest. Photo: Joleen Cronin

Sarah Collins

EU health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis is in fine fettle ahead of his trip to Ireland as we settle into his potted tree-lined office. The 66-year-old heart surgeon and self-confessed ex-hippy is one of the Commission's more outspoken members, led by science and common sense more than politics. "Medical doctor, historian and humanist. Not a bureaucrat," goes his Twitter bio.

And speak out he does, branding a hard Brexit "idiotic", abortion bans "controversial", and the ongoing fight over weedkiller glyphosate an exercise in scapegoating.

Mr Andriukaitis - who was snapped facepalming during a rant by arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage last year, a photo that later went viral - is visibly moved at the idea of a border re-emerging in Ireland.

"I can't imagine what must be done, and why we are moving in such an idiotic direction, to build new walls," he tells the Irish Independent from his office in the Commission's central Brussels headquarters.

"This is really an idiotic direction and I absolutely know what the feeling is between Irish people. Can you imagine? Relatives, friends, the possibility to walk freely from one side to another, to travel, and today, you must decide - Vytenis Andriukaitis, as a member of the European Commission - you are responsible to build new walls?" he cries.

His emotion about the Border is understandable, given he was born and partly raised in one of Stalin's gulags, was at the forefront of the Lithuanian independence movement, the Sajudis, and helped to draft his country's constitution.

He recalls a trip to Belfast in 1992, where he was shocked by the barbed wire cleaving Catholic and Protestant communities.

"I saw real ghettos in Belfast," he says. "I thought that maybe it was Soviet propaganda, but I saw it in reality, with my eyes. I stayed in central Belfast and in the night there was a big explosion, and it was a real experience."

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The energetic Lithuanian is responsible for health and food safety, a portfolio that covers disease control, medicines, chemicals, patients' rights (to treatment abroad, for instance), animal and plant health, and food fraud (like the 2013 horse meat scandal).

It's a vast and technically detailed brief that has given him an insight into how complex the Brexit talks will be, particularly in the second phase on a future EU-UK trade deal. "It's absolutely a difficult question and a difficult feeling after 40 years - 40 years!" He covers his face with his hands. "Two generations, more or less."

"It will be so difficult to discuss those issues about customs, about controls, about entry points, because we will have borders with a third country - it's not only between Northern Ireland and Ireland," he says.

He doesn't want to comment on the recent back-biting between London and Brussels.

"I must do my job and not poison, not create new troubles and not send different messages. Why? Because it's very dangerous, always. It creates a lot of rumours. It creates a lot of misconceptions. And then it creates a lot of conspiracy theories," he explains.

He promises the Commission will be "very practical, very technical" during the Brexit talks, but can he be sure the EU will internalise Ireland's concerns over the Border and the peace process?

"I know that Ireland has a lot of worries. A lot. And I am very happy to listen to people and see how to better understand the situation," he says.

He loves visiting Ireland and is looking forward to a town hall-style gathering at Dublin Castle today, where he will take citizens' questions. He will also meet Health Minister Simon Harris.

A former health minister himself, Mr Andriukaitis is evangelical about clean eating and healthy living, believing that lifestyle choices "are killing us" and putting unnecessary stress on the health service.

"It's things which are, today, on the table in your country: sugar, salt, alcohol, tobacco," he says.

He is also openly pro-choice, despite being religious - though he is a "follower of Jesus" rather than the church, he insists.

Controversial

"To ban abortions, from my point of view, is something, frankly speaking, controversial," he said.

"But it's up to Ireland, it's up to you. It's up to your democratically elected politicians. It's not up to me to judge the Irish Constitution. I am very proud that in the Lithuanian constitution we do not have such obstacles," he says.

"From my point of view, it would be better to provide better access to reproductive health," he says.

"But if something would happen, you know, you have possibilities to help women, to regulate."

Irish Independent

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