Thursday 22 August 2019

Leo's 5am showdown with Merkel a signal of battles to come as he 'sticks to his guns'


The commission presidency in the end went to Germany's Ursula von der Leyen. Photo: REUTERS/Stephane Mahe
The commission presidency in the end went to Germany's Ursula von der Leyen. Photo: REUTERS/Stephane Mahe
Hugh O'Connell

Hugh O'Connell

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar resisted strong pressure from Angela Merkel to accept her pick for the EU's top job in an extraordinary 5am meeting in Brussels last Monday.

Details of the meeting on the margins of the marathon EU summit have emerged as senior Government figures believe the pressure Mr Varadkar came under was a forewarning of what he could face in the hours leading up to Britain leaving the EU on October 31.

'Respected voice': Leo Varadkar's hardline stance on the top EU jobs won him allies with smaller nations while annoying Angela Merkel. Photo: Steve Humphreys
'Respected voice': Leo Varadkar's hardline stance on the top EU jobs won him allies with smaller nations while annoying Angela Merkel. Photo: Steve Humphreys

It has been long suggested that Ireland will come under pressure from Germany and France to back down on the Border backstop to avoid a catastrophic no-deal Brexit in the hours before Britain is due to leave. A senior Government source claimed after the Brussels showdown that the Taoiseach would "stick to his guns" if he is put in a similar position at the end of October.

However, other Brussels sources contend that Mr Varadkar's summit was not the success he had hoped for after he failed to land EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in the European Commission presidency. A commission source claimed the Taoiseach had been Mr Barnier's "election agent" throughout much of the diplomatic tic-tacking last Sunday and Monday.

Ultimately the presidency went to Ursula von der Leyen, Germany's defence minister and an ally of Ms Merkel. Despite the contention from many observers that the summit had been a humiliation for Ms Merkel, a senior Irish Government source described it as a "masterful Machiavellian strategy" by the German chancellor.

Ms Merkel arrived at the EU summit hoping to push through a deal on the division of the bloc's top jobs that she had hammered out with French President Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka. It would see the European People's Party (EPP), Fine Gael's EU grouping, relinquish the commission presidency which would go instead to Dutch socialist Frans Timmermans. But the idea was rejected at a pre-summit gathering of EPP prime ministers where a row between leaders delayed the start of the main EU summit.

But Ms Merkel persisted that Sunday evening as the summit was suspended to allow for a series of informal meetings on the margins to try to break the impasse.

With everyone sleep-deprived at around 5am on Monday, Ms Merkel met with Mr Varadkar and five other EPP prime ministers to try to force the issue. But at the meeting, Mr Varadkar, Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš (Latvia), Andrej Plenković (Croatia) and Klaus Iohannis (Romania) stuck to their position that the commission presidency should not go to a non-EPP candidate.

Mr Timmermans was also attracting opposition from leaders of the Visegrád four - Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia - who have clashed with the EU commissioner in recent years. One EPP source claimed Mr Varadkar's stance won him praise at senior levels in the EU's pre-eminent grouping. "He brought a respected voice to the anti-Timmermans camp where it had only really been the V4 speaking publicly against him," they said.

Mr Varadkar's allies insisted he was not dead-set against Mr Timmermans but rather did not believe the EPP, which won the most seats in the European Parliament elections, should not relinquish the opportunity to assume the commission presidency.

With Mr Timmermans's candidacy dead, Mr Macron is reported to have suggested Ms Von der Leyen to Ms Merkel, whose name began circling among journalists at the summit on Tuesday afternoon.

The deal was done within a few short hours.

An exhausted Mr Varadkar left the summit on Tuesday insisting that it had been a good outcome for Ireland, citing the elevation of Belgian PM Charles Michel to European Council president and IMF managing director Christine Lagarde who is set for the European Central Bank.

Depending on who you listen to in Brussels, the Taoiseach's hardline stance either lost him political capital with an annoyed Ms Merkel as well as Mr Macron or, alternatively, he burnished his credentials with leaders from smaller member states who found in him a credible ally.

Bigger battles lie ahead. Despite publicly resisting comment on the Conservative leadership race, the Taoiseach expects he will have to deal with Boris Johnson as British prime minister by the end of next month.

Asked last Sunday if he could have a dialogue with Mr Johnson, he said: "I am sure I will and I look forward to an early meeting with him," before quickly adding: "Assuming he is the new prime minister, which I don't want to quite assume just yet."

With Mr Johnson insisting he will take Britain out of the EU on October 31, deal or no deal, Mr Varadkar will seek an early meeting with the new PM to "test his real red lines", as the senior Government source put it.

Irish Independent

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