Friday 23 March 2018

'Steel Magnolia' Dalia puts tardy Enda in his place

But the Taoiseach still hopes to cut a deal on the EU budget, writes Lise Hand in Vilnius

Lise Hand

Lise Hand

The end of Ireland's EU presidency may very well be nigh with just over three weeks to go, but there's still one humongous piece of unfinished business left on the Taoiseach's to-do list – and that's to hammer out a deal on the Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF), which is essentially the EU's budget for the next seven years, from 2014 to 2020.

Last January when he sat himself down upon the EU throne for his six-month reign, Enda was quite chipper about his Government's chances of sorting out a deal, but now it looks increasingly as if the next country in line – Lithuania – may be left holding the €960bn baby on July 1.

And so the Taoiseach put Vilnius at the top of his tour schedule this week when he headed for the Baltic countries, packing in meetings with the Lithuanian president and prime minister yesterday afternoon, before heading to Latvia – the new kid on the eurozone block – later in the day, with Helsinki as his final stop today.

Yet despite the tight schedule, the Taoiseach still managed to be an hour late to the presidential palace of Dalia Grybauskaite – which was brave of him, as Lithuania's first female head of state is a formidable woman. Elected by a huge majority in 2009, she's the country's most popular politician.

She speaks five languages and is an economic expert – she was the former EU commissioner in charge of the union's budget and was Lithuania's finance minister for three years.

As she bustled into the post-meeting press conference, it was clear why President Grybauskaite is dubbed the 'Iron Lady' and 'Steel Magnolia'.

For she bears more than a striking resemblance to Angela Merkel (albeit a blonde version of the German chancellor), exudes the same no-nonsense air and in the past has cited Margaret Thatcher as one of her role models.

"She was the only cabinet minister who would argue with the prime minister," explained one local journalist awaiting the duo's arrival.

Inevitably the knotty problem of negotiating a deal on the EU budget had loomed large in their discussions.

Equally inevitably, the Taoiseach was his usual upbeat self when it came to the crunch question of whether he and Team Enda will do in three weeks what they've failed to do over the last five months and one week.

"We are hoping over the next period of three weeks that there will be intensive discussions," he said about the midnight oil he expects to be burned by officials and politicians before the end of the month. "I do think it's possible to conclude this," he added.

But is it realistic to expect a deal in such a short space of time? He wasn't ready to wave the white flag just just yet, and leave Dalia with a €960bn headache.

"I do hope that it can be concluded during the course of the Irish presidency, but clearly the monies cannot be paid out upfront until the bill is actually completed later in the year," he reckoned.

"It is a mixture of hope and belief. As we approach the concluding stages of these, minds do begin to focus deeply on what it does take to reach conclusions," he explained.

The Steel Magnolia was having none of such flowery aspirations.

"I would wish everybody would feel the responsibility to conclude these negotiations. We have a collective responsibility, we can't be pointing fingers," she said briskly.

"If agreement is not reached, the monies will not reach where they are needed," she said. "For me it is not about hope, for me it is about necessity," she concluded firmly.

That was the Taoiseach told.

Afterwards he headed for Riga, where he met with Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis and President Andris Berzins.

And Enda was intrigued to be told by the prime minister that Latvia imports ash wood from the Ukraine which is then manufactured into hurleys and exported to Ireland.

And inevitably – even in the Baltic countries – the Irish media persisted in having home thoughts while abroad, and in Vilnius the Taoiseach was asked about the hoohah over the Seanad back in Ireland.

As he and President Grybauskaite wrapped up the press conference, the Iron Lady leaned over and commiserated. "Domestic questions follow us everywhere."

The Taoiseach nodded.

They were in harmony over that one alright.

Irish Independent

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