Monday 11 November 2019

Hugh O'Connell: 'Leo looks to Scandinavia for bike rides and solidarity ahead of Herculean task'

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar bike in Copenhagen. Picture: Ritzau Scanpix/Ida Guldbaek Arentsen via REUTERS
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar bike in Copenhagen. Picture: Ritzau Scanpix/Ida Guldbaek Arentsen via REUTERS
Hugh O'Connell

Hugh O'Connell

Leo Varadkar stood in awe of the giant statues of Hercules and Athena outside the Danish prime minister's office on a chilly afternoon in Copenhagen.

"Imagine that," he gushed.

As he returned from an enlightening bike ride around the Danish capital, the symbolism was not lost on the Taoiseach at the end of yet another week of Brexit drama.

Mr Varadkar, you may recall, told Boris Johnson when he came to Dublin in September that delivering a Brexit deal was "a Herculean task" but Ireland wanted to be "your Athena in doing so".

The events of this week have shown Ireland to have been far from helpful to Mr Johnson's cause as it politely dumped on his complex Brexit solution.

The 'two borders, for four years' proposition is, Dublin says, a non-runner. As the Taoiseach himself told a joint press conference in the Danish capital, "it appears to create two borders" in the North.

Then he stuck the boot in: "What's being put on the table by Prime Minister Johnson is not supported by businesses in Northern Ireland, by civil society, and is only supported by one political party."

It was a further jab at the DUP which has gone nuclear over the Irish Government's dismissal of a 'solution' it had heartily endorsed. Firebrand MP Sammy Wilson was sent out to rebuke Mr Varadkar: "His blundering disrespect for people who support the Union and prejudice was put up in lights for all to see."

All this Brexit misery somewhat overshadowed Mr Varadkar's two-day Scandinavian sojourn which, along with shoring up the solidarity on Brexit - and it was not in short supply - was about forging stronger ties with Nordic countries.

In Copenhagen he encountered Mette Frederiksen. The 41-year-old social democrat is, like the Taoiseach, her country's youngest ever head of government who has only been in power since June and is enjoying a honeymoon period that Mr Varadkar no doubt longs for. The pair got on famously as Ms Frederiksen gently teased her counterpart for avoiding kayaking whilst they explored the city on bikes. "Maybe next time," she said.

"When there's no cameras," the Taoiseach responded uncharacteristically, given his penchant for photo-ops.

Earlier Mr Varadkar was love-bombed as he opened an Enterprise Ireland office in Copenhagen where the agency's Nordics director Marina Donohoe described him as "well-respected and well-regarded" on the global stage.

Mr Varadkar gave his usual stump speech as Ireland ramps up its post-Brexit activity and seeks to boost its presence in the Nordics, a market where there was €877m-worth of exports last year.

The warmth and camaraderie in Copenhagen was in sharp contrast to the business-like engagement between Mr Varadkar and his Swedish counterpart in a dour office building on an overcast and drizzly afternoon in Stockholm the day before. The Taoiseach, a privately educated medical doctor, would have found little in common with Stefan Lofven, a former air force private and qualified welder, who was a trade unionist before turning to politics.

Still there were warm words of solidarity on Brexit and the Swedish PM displayed an acute awareness of the importance of the open border in Ireland. "We all remember the violence during the Troubles very clearly and the Good Friday Agreement must not be put at risk," Mr Lofven said.

The Irish Government looks to Denmark and Sweden for ideas on climate change as well as solidarity on Brexit and the next EU budget talks where the economic boom will lead to demands for a greater financial contribution.

In Brussels, member states who work together are usually the ones who can get things done. For decades Ireland looked east to the UK, but from now on it will look to northern Europe and elsewhere.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss