Sunday 18 August 2019

Hugh O'Connell: 'Varadkar rejecting European advances for now - but he will be a future contender'


Contender: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the EU leaders’ summit to select candidates for top EU jobs in Brussels. Picture: Reuters
Contender: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the EU leaders’ summit to select candidates for top EU jobs in Brussels. Picture: Reuters
Hugh O'Connell

Hugh O'Connell

If sitting around for several hours waiting for nothing to happen is your thing, then there were few places better than the Europa Building in Brussels for all of Sunday evening and early yesterday morning.

After a marathon overnight session, EU leaders failed to reach an agreement on the so-called 'package' which would divvy up the top jobs in the bloc - including the presidencies of the Commission, Council, and Parliament, as well as the high representative for foreign affairs.

"A lot of tired people and no consensus," said one Irish Government source as they headed for their bed yesterday morning.

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Leaders will make one more push today just as the European Parliament meets in Strasbourg ahead of a vote scheduled for tomorrow. The identity of who they'll be voting on remains unclear.

The difficulties in reaching a deal were apparent from early Sunday evening, when a pre-summit gathering of prime ministers from the European People's Party - the EU's largest political grouping, which includes Fine Gael and heavy-hitters such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel - ran late.

Leo Varadkar arrived to inform us that the Osaka package, a plan to fill the top jobs hatched by the German, French, Dutch and Spanish leaders on the margins of the G20 summit last weekend, was effectively dead.

"I think it's fair to say there is a lot of opposition to the proposal that was made in Osaka," said the Taoiseach.

He appears to have supported central European countries opposed to Frans Timmermans, the Dutch socialist candidate who Ms Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron appear to support.

It's unclear whether Mr Varadkar's reluctance was borne out of wanting to gain more concessions for the EPP in the overall package, or solidarity with the so-called Visegrád countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) which oppose Mr Timmermans on the basis of his past criticisms of their record on human rights and judicial independence.

Was Mr Varadkar doing them a turn because of their strong backing for Ireland on Brexit issues at the EU Council, wondered some Irish EU sources.

In any case, Mr Varadkar is well-regarded across European circles. As EU officials emerged into the press area to divulge very little in the early hours of yesterday, the 'Financial Times' reported that Donald Tusk was spreading the Taoiseach's name as one of three possible Commission presidents in bilateral talks with EU leaders.

When Mr Tusk said this to Mr Varadkar in their bilateral chat, the Taoiseach responded that he wasn't interested, according to a well-placed source.

The truth is that Mr Varadkar's links to a top EU job, while intriguing, are not particularly credible.

He likes being a contender and probably will be a serious one in the years ahead. But a glance at the CVs of those actually in contention reveals a vast amount of experience among the frontrunners.

The Taoiseach, a monoglot, can only dream of speaking the six languages in which Mr Timmermans is said to be fluent. But the former Dutch foreign minister's odds for the commission presidency appear to be lengthening amid disagreement in the EPP.

If he's out, then maybe it will go to Michel Barnier, the suave 68-year-old Frenchman and Brexit negotiator who is a veteran of the EU institutions.

Then there is Kristalina Georgieva, a former Bulgarian commissioner and current chief of the World Bank, who is in the running for the European Council presidency.

Another female contender is Margrethe Vestager, the EU's outgoing competition commissioner, who fined Apple €13bn in unpaid taxes. As the head of a government that strongly disputes Apple owes us anything, could Mr Varadkar stomach backing Ms Vestager for the high representative for foreign affairs job that she is being linked with?

It may well be in his interests, if he really does court a future top job in the EU.

Irish Independent

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