Sunday 25 August 2019

Hugh O'Connell: 'This Brussels marathon could be a sign of things to come'


Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrives to take part in a European Union leaders summit, in Brussels. Photo: Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/Pool via REUTERS
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrives to take part in a European Union leaders summit, in Brussels. Photo: Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/Pool via REUTERS
Hugh O'Connell

Hugh O'Connell

The three days of division among EU leaders over who should fill the bloc's top jobs is a sign that those now set to lead the Brussels institutions for the next five years may find it harder to achieve consensus.

Add to that the fragmented outcome of the European Parliament elections last month - where centrist pro-European parliamentary groupings suffered amid gains for populist, far-right and Eurosceptic parties - and it's clear the EU will be a very different place in the years ahead. And not just because the UK is due to leave, perhaps as early as October.

This special European summit in warm and sunny Brussels was supposed to last a long Sunday evening but instead turned into a three-day marathon of deadlock, which was finally broken last night.

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The late-night back-channelling by EU officials and heads of government in recent days was reminiscent of the eurozone crisis.

Back then, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the dominant figure - but she will be departing the stage soon, and it's clear from this summit that her influence over the EU's pre-eminent political grouping, the EPP, is already gone.

Ms Merkel's plan - hatched with French President Emmanuel Macron on the fringes of the G20 - to install the Socialist Frans Timmermans as Commission president was dead on arrival in Brussels last Sunday.

The decision to block Mr Timmermans was political in that the majority of the EPP, including the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, did not want to lose out on the top job. But it also exposed to some degree the schism between the dominant establishment EU nations and the smaller and relatively newer members from central and eastern Europe.

Poland and Hungary, who have already had their share of disputes with Brussels in recent years, along with Slovakia and the Czech Republic - the so-called Visegrád Four - flexed their muscles at this summit and, in the words of Hungarian PM Viktor Orban's spokesman, "toppled Timmermans".

But it's not just the smaller nations either. Italy now has a populist and Eurosceptic government which has not been shy about criticising the EU in recent times, and that is unlikely to change in the months ahead.

As he left Brussels last night - nearly 48 hours after he had probably hoped to - the Taoiseach rejected the contention that it would be harder to make decisions at an EU level, but acknowledged it could now take a bit longer.

"I don't think it's fractured," he said. "It's definitely more fragmented because there are many more groups now in the European Parliament and when traditionally in the past almost all of the prime ministers would have belonged either to the EPP or the Socialists, that's no longer the case.

"There are lots of liberals, which is a good thing, and there are also at least three or four who are not in any of the major three groups, so it's more fragmented. So maybe that makes it a little bit harder to take decisions. But that doesn't mean that we won't still take them, and take the right ones."

Irish Independent

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