Saturday 24 February 2018

Taoiseach thrown in at the deep end as he heads to Brussels

Today Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will meet with the President of the EU Council, Donald Tusk, and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Picture: PA
Today Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will meet with the President of the EU Council, Donald Tusk, and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Picture: PA
John Downing

John Downing

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will be advised to pack several changes of shirt, and keep a good supply of coffee close by, as he attends his first EU leaders’ summit in Brussels today.

The EU capital is sweltering in a heatwave with temperatures in the mid-30s. And Mr Varadkar faces a series of meetings likely to continue into the early hours of tomorrow.

Today’s proceedings will be divided into two sessions. The first beginning just after lunch will include Britain and all the other EU states.

Tonight at 10.30pm, the remaining 27 EU member states, without Britain, will begin their own deliberations.

Like his predecessor Enda Kenny, the new Taoiseach is being thrown in at the deep end of the EU pool just days after his appointment. He must set down a strong marker about Ireland’s unique interests as 22 months of tough Brexit negotiations have just begun.

But the two days of talks in Brussels will offer Mr Varadkar an opportunity to change the agenda away from the damaging controversy about the appointment of the former Attorney General to be a judge at the Court of Appeal.

Today the Taoiseach will meet with the President of the EU Council, Donald Tusk, and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Tomorrow he will sit down to a private meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The new French president, Emmanuel Macron, will also be attending his first EU leaders’ summit since his election last month. Officials expect Mr Varadkar will also have an opportunity to speak with Mr Macron.

Irish officials said the Taoiseach will report from his meeting in London with British Prime Minister Theresa May. He will again reiterate Ireland’s policy of remaining at the heart of the EU, in spite of the departure of the country’s biggest trading partner. Mr Varadkar (inset) is expected to thank the other EU member states for giving priority to Ireland’s case regarding Brexit. But he will stress Ireland’s keen interest in moving the Brexit talks to dealing with the future EU-UK relationship as quickly as possible. EU officials are insistent this cannot happen until the separation terms, especially UK contributions of up to €100bn, are seriously advanced.

EU officials were last night assessing the programme outlined by Mrs May in the Westminster parliament. The Queen’s Speech included eight separate pieces of legislation related to Brexit and is obviously aimed at clearing the way for Britain’s eventual departure from the EU in March 2019. Unhappily for Ireland, this speech had all the hallmarks of committing to a so-called “hard Brexit”.

Mrs May will try to pass a large suite of bills returning powers to London on topics like trade, customs and immigration. The British government also plans to pass legislation on agriculture and fisheries.

It will, as signalled by Mrs May last autumn, push ahead with a “Repeal Bill”. The name is more than a little misleading because it will effectively transfer EU law onto the UK statute book, a move that will ensure continuity and avoid a legal vacuum.

The speech and what follows is also a critical test of Mrs May’s authority, which is seriously impaired after the general election. There is every chance she may not get enough votes in the House of Commons to support the broad thrust of her programme.

In that event, her government will almost certainly fall. Mrs May has resolved to work with “humility and resolve” to see Brexit through.

Her weakened position does not help ensure a smooth negotiation process. More optimistically, Brussels diplomats stress avoiding a hard Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic remains the key challenge for Brexit negotiations. Brussels diplomats are speculating Mrs May could offer a post-Brexit deal guaranteeing rights of EU nationals in Britain.

Irish Independent

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