Sunday 20 October 2019

Immense challenges now lie ahead for Taoiseach - and may define his term of office

French President Emmanuel Macron (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)
French President Emmanuel Macron (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)
John Downing

John Downing

Leo Varadkar was just 10 weeks old when Ireland crossed its first fork in the EU-UK road. Ireland joined the new currency grid, the Exchange Rate Mechanism, shunned by Britain. The change ended Ireland's link with sterling which had continued since the foundation of the State.

Now Leo Varadkar becomes the first Taoiseach to attend a EU leaders summit who was born after Ireland's European bloc membership began in 1973. He comes at a relatively good time if you compare the state the EU found itself in just a year ago.

But it remains a time of profound challenge. How the new Taoiseach leads Ireland's response may define his term at Government Buildings.

Happily, most film evocations of the EU have been at best poor. So, there was no repeat of the Taoiseach's conjuring up scenes from the movie 'Love Actually', as happened with his Downing Street debut with British Prime Minister, Theresa May.

But marching into his first gathering of EU leaders yesterday afternoon, the newly minted Taoiseach was clearly happy to be there.

"I think I'm arriving at a time when there is cause to be optimistic about Europe, the European economy is growing faster than the American economy, and also we see renewed European unity around important issues," he told reporters.

Read More: Why a special deal for Republic and the North is vital in the world beyond Brexit

Had Leo Varadkar made his debut even late last year it would have been a different story as public confidence was hugely undermined. The trade bloc, afflicted with stalled economic growth, was reeling from the shock decision by Britain to quit the EU after 43 years' membership.

But now his debut has followed a series of reversals for anti-European and anti-migrant parties in elections in Austria, the Netherlands and France.

And it's just a few months before Chancellor Angela Merkel goes to the polls in Germany - opposed by an equally pro-EU opponent, the Social Democrats. The Taoiseach acknowledged the potential Irish horror which could result from Brexit. But he was decidedly Micawber-esque in his optimism that things just might work out.

"While Britain says that it intends to leave the customs union and intends to leave the single market, it also says that it wants a free trade agreement, and many of the elements of a free trade agreement, while not being the same as the customs union, may not be that far from it either," he ventured.

Read More: May outlines 'generous offer' to EU citizens in UK as Varadkar sets out Irish case

Leo Varadkar drew more than his share of international media interest but the real European media focus was the new French President Emmanuel Macron.

Macron (39) grew up in a united Europe. He campaigned unashamedly on a pro-EU platform, and has now promised to forge ahead with Germany to make the bloc stronger. Macron's dynamism offers EU devotees new hope. He made his summit debut calling for joint European defence, a joint budget for eurozone countries, and a tougher stance against the US and China on trade. These are not all ideas Ireland would immediately embrace - but are positive and forward-looking.

"Europe is not, to my mind, just an idea. It's a project, an ambition," President Macron told reporters.

Macron, who grew up in a globalised economy, rightly notes the historic force behind European integration has always been France and Germany. But he insisted that a Franco-German partnership was not to exclude other member states. Still the spectre of Britain's imminent departure and the fallout across Europe looms large. The challenges for the Taoiseach at EU level remain immense.

Irish Independent

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