Wednesday 17 July 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'Farmers' grievances show tensions that leave the EU struggling for strength in face of Putin and Trump'

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

It's safe to say, without fear of exaggeration, that Europe is currently standing on the edge of a political cliff with no obvious way out.

Brexit hasn't merely ushered in a new era of anti-EU resentment, it has exposed fault lines across the continent which have been growing wider with each passing year.

The problems posed by this domestic turbulence are also mirrored by the increasing belligerence of its largest neighbour, Russia, and its largest trading partner, the US.

Putin's rather cavalier remarks at the G20 summit in Osaka that liberalism is now "obsolete" and is in "conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population" was an unwelcome reminder, if one was needed, that the Russian leader knows the institutions which provide the foundations of the EU are weaker than at any time since the establishment of the Union itself.

At the same G20 meeting, Donald Trump also seized the opportunity to have a go at the EU, saying it "treat us worse than China".

Then, Trump being Trump, he singled out the EU's anti-trust czar, Margrethe Vestager, claiming: "She hates the United States perhaps worse than any person I've ever met. What she does to our country.

"She's suing all our companies. We should be suing Google and Facebook, and perhaps we will."

When the heads of both the United States and Russia take it in turns, like some sort of extremely undiplomatic tag team, to single out the EU for special opprobrium - contempt from Putin, anger from Trump - the EU mandarins need to be in their best shape.

After all, beset with problems from within, including but not limited to Brexit, and assailed by bad-faith politicians from without, if the EU is to have any hope for a secure future, it needs to be able to cope firmly with such threats.

But as we have seen in the last few days, that couldn't be further from the truth.

The events in Brussels have been as tiresome as they are familiar. Sunday night saw the convening of a special summit in the Belgian capital to decide the next president of the European Commission.

That initial meeting failed and the expected appointment of Socialist candidate Frans Timmermans was halted by the European People's Party, the largest bloc in the Parliament and the group to which Fine Gael is aligned.

In rather typical EU fashion, they are still engaging in backroom politicking and Leo Varadkar was honest in his appraisal of the situation when he admitted on his way into Sunday's meeting that: "A lot of the countries from central and Eastern Europe are very much opposed to the proposal that Timmermans be president of the Commission, largely because they believe it will further divisions between east and west.

"So I think we're in for a long night and I don't think it's certain by any means that we'll have a solution this evening."

That prediction proved correct, although Mr Varadkar wouldn't have needed a crystal ball to foresee such bureaucratic torpor from this institution.

The meetings continued yesterday and, at the time of writing, there was still no indication of any decision.

In fact, even before the first gathering between the EPP leaders on Sunday, which ended in rancour and reports of a row between some of the various players, there was talk the decision would have to be postponed for at least a fortnight, which if nothing else reminds us politicians love nothing more than kicking the proverbial can down the road.

Of course, Varadkar has been named as one of the potential compromise replacements, although he was quick to kill any conjecture with a decisive statement that he had no interest in succeeding outgoing President Jean-Claude Juncker, insisting: "I have a job, it's as Taoiseach of Ireland. I'm loving the job. I'm only getting started, I hope, so I've no plans for a career change at this stage."

That statement will, of course, be met with a rather mixed reaction from the voters, many of whom would like to see him decamp to Brussels, but he has been doing his best under difficult Brexit circumstances.

However, we must remember that as well as Brexit, this country also has EU-created problems to contend with.

The proposed EU-Mercosur trade deal with Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay will flood the EU with cheap beef and comes at an estimated cost to the Irish sector of €750m a year.

Already floundering under uncertainty caused by events in the UK, this is a double whammy to the already hard-pressed farmers and the proposal has placed EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan under the microscope.

The IFA has accused Hogan's deal of being "reckless and wrong" and says: "He has done nothing to protect the Irish farmer, so he wouldn't be a loss."

Hogan has been accused of putting his own interests, and apparent desire for the EU trade portfolio, ahead of the Irish national interest.

That goes to the heart of an ineradicable problem which faces the EU - when national politicians go to Brussels they are expected to abandon any loyalty to their country of origin and work solely in the best interests of the EU.

So when a Fianna Fáil source sniped that Hogan "will get plenty of kudos from the Commission but it's a bad deal for Ireland" they were entirely correct, but the supranational technocrats in Brussels will see such a statement as a compliment rather than an insult.

There is a reason why the so called Visegrad countries - the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia - blocked Timmermans's appointment. As Commissioner for the Rule of Law, he has been critical of those countries for, amongst other things, their strict approach to immigration.

These are nations which still have a living memory of being under the Soviet jackboot and they are less inclined to indulge in utopian ideals than their bosses in Brussels.

Fundamental divisions such as these will not go away and, in fact, are only destined to become worse.

The only surprising aspect to these spats is that they have been greeted with any surprise.

After all, the EU encompasses 28 countries with a population of more than half a billion people. As Varadkar correctly noted, there is a growing chasm between the more established western countries and those on the EU's eastern frontier.

It's a chasm defined by cultural, political, social and historical differences that are simply impossible to completely reconcile.

But that's a question for the EU's future.

We're all more concerned with its present.

Yet at a time when all the member states need to stand together, we're beginning to see more of them walking on their own.

Irish Independent

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