Saturday 24 August 2019

President Higgins goes off-script with jibes at Brexit in Germany

State visit: The President and his wife Sabina (centre) with their German counterparts. Picture: Maxwells
State visit: The President and his wife Sabina (centre) with their German counterparts. Picture: Maxwells

Nicola Anderson in Berlin

Perhaps it was down to being a guest in a land of famously plain speakers that made Michael D Higgins abandon the usual diplomatic sidestepping when it came to talking about "the B word", as he called it.

Certainly, the printed copy of his speech at a Bord Bia-hosted (and Michelin-starred) lunch in Berlin gave no indication as to what was to come.

The President was discussing the ramifications of the continued Brexit uncertainty for the Irish food and drink industry when he veered rather alarmingly off-piste, smoothly ad-libbing "as our nearest neighbour continues to throw a tantrum".

There it was. An unvarnished ball of hard truth, thrown up for whoever was willing to catch it. Among the guests, some raised an eyebrow - before smothering a smile.

Patience with our UK neighbours, suffice to say, is wearing rather thin, to judge by the mood of the first day of President Higgins's state visit to Germany.

Quite clearly, the same feeling exists on the German side.

So there was something of an 'old friends getting together to grumble comfortably about a mutual pal' vibe in the meeting between Mr Higgins and his German counterpart, Dr Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

The German president and his wife, Elke Büdenbender, stood outside the presidential palace, Schloss Bellevue in Berlin, to welcome Mr Higgins and his wife Sabina.

With so little to be said about men's suits, attention is usually drawn to the women's attire. This time it really was noteworthy - both wore magenta pink. Whether an unfortunate oversight by wardrobe departments or a deliberate gesture of solidarity, we could not tell.

At the press conference, the German president reiterated his country's solidarity with Ireland, with a reassuring: "Don't worry."

Mr Higgins referred to conversations that British politicians have had about reopening Brexit negotiations.

"As President, I have to restrain myself on asking whether they did or didn't take place," he said drily.

President Steinmeier said he hoped there is no increase in those who "fantasise about a no-deal Brexit".

They left with the promise of a return state visit, an invitation warmly extended and received. Then it was a whistle-stop tour of Berlin, with the Brandenburg Gate, City Hall and a visit to the Neue Wache, a moving memorial for victims of war and tyranny.

At a lunch hosted by Bord Bia, head Donal Denvir announced an increase in Irish food exports to Germany from €570m in 2014 to €730m in 2018.

Mr Higgins said uncertainty around Brexit would bring challenges to the industry "as our nearest neighbour continues to throw a tantrum".

After lunch, he was greeted with a warmly crisp "welcome" by Chancellor Angela Merkel, before a short meeting, then another meeting with Wolfgang Schäuble, president of the Bundestag, Germany's federal parliament.

At an Enterprise Ireland event for Irish companies operating in Germany, he opened his remarks "as Gaeilge" but quipped that he would continue in English as Brexit meant "we have to take responsibility for the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare in the European Union".

Enterprise Ireland CEO Julie Sinnamon later said the visit was important, given that while 12,000 people are employed by German firms in Ireland, some 15,000 people are employed by Irish companies in Germany.

She also announced a new partnership with the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin which will run courses to prepare Irish businesses to enter the eurozone market.

The President's day ended with a state dinner.

Irish Independent

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