Friday 6 December 2019

No Brexit for old men: time for Kenny to give leadership on EU to FG's next generation

Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar
Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar

Fionnan Sheahan

One of the advantages of Enda Kenny's attendance at EU leaders' summits was the ability to be free to sit in on the press conferences of EU heavyhitters.

The Taoiseach was always notoriously late for his own run-down on the outcome of the summit. The unkind suggestion was it took longer for his officials to teach him what to say.

So there was a chance to hear Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande or David Cameron offer their take on events, before the Taoiseach's less enlightening assessment.

One occasion now springs to mind from October 2011 when Cameron and then French President Nicolas Sarkozy clashed over efforts to save the euro. During Sarkozy's briefing, three Fleet Street journalists stood at the back of the room, with headphones on for interpretation, sniggering at every comment the president made. No matter how innocuous, the British Eurosceptic press representatives guffawed amongst themselves and interpreted it as a dig at Blighty: 'There he goes again.'

Although the euro crisis was a time of particular tension, difficulties between Britain and the continental heavyweights were a characteristic of EU negotiations for three decades. Therefore, it's no surprise elements in the EU hierarchy are not sorry to see the back of the largest obstacle to any efforts at integration.

Merkel has stalled the hawks who want Britain gone as soon as possible. Nonetheless, the situation is moving fast and positions are being adopted now. Ireland has no time to lose to get its voice heard.

But the Government has been caught on the hop three times now on Brexit. Firstly, issuing a Summer Economic Statement just 48 hours before the Brexit referendum bordered on stupidity.

Secondly, the contingency plan for a Brexit released by Kenny on Friday was less than inspiring and suggests the Government didn't see the result coming.

Thirdly, the Government has been sitting on the sidelines as the heavyhitters have moved ahead with the meeting in the Villa Borsig in Germany of the EU's six founding members.

Our policy on the EU is largely shaped by Kenny and Finance Minister Michael Noonan - two experienced figures who most likely won't be in office when Britain actually exits, if even when Brexit negotiations begin.

The Brexit vote is a genuine game changer and Kenny has to respond by putting ministers in place who will be there for the long haul.

Firstly, he needs to reinstate the second secretary general in the Department of the Taoiseach, which Eamon Gilmore introduced as Tánaiste to coordinate European Union activities and give a more joined-up approach. The return of a senior diplomat like Dan Mulhall or Geraldine Byrne-Nason to take this position would be appropriate.

Secondly, the Government needs an Action Plan for Europe, outlining the tasks of every government department and agency in the Brexit negotiations.

Thirdly, the Taoiseach now has to make Minister for Europe a senior Cabinet position, with a commensurate appointment from the front ranks of Fine Gael's next generation of leadership figures.

Former Europe Minister Paschal Donohoe is trusted by Kenny and is clearly being lined up as Noonan's replacement as Finance Minister in the coming years. Simon Coveney made an impression while briefly serving as MEP, developing contacts with influential figures like former Finnish prime minister Alexander Stubb, who lamented his return to domestic politics.

However, Coveney does have a big task in managing the housing crisis.

The alternative option is to take Leo Varadkar out of the backwater as Social Welfare Minister, by capitalising on his long-standing interest in European Affairs.

Irish Independent

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