Sunday 22 September 2019

John Downing: 'Big challenges ahead in shake out of the EU's power structure'


Handily placed: Leo Varadkar arrives for a European Union summit in Brussels. Photo: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
Handily placed: Leo Varadkar arrives for a European Union summit in Brussels. Photo: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
John Downing

John Downing

Suddenly Leo Varadkar is somewhere else. After an intense 10 days of election hustings, and eight days of fending off questions about an ill-starred legal action by his backbench TD Maria Bailey, the Taoiseach was in Brussels discussing the mass changing of the EU guard.

At the same time, the make up of Ireland's new MEPs, 11 of whom begin work on July 2, was finally taking shape after three days of vote counting. This European Parliament has grown in power over the past 30 years.

So, the Irish MEPs have a big job representing Irish interests in this 751-member parliament at the most crucial time in our 45 years of EU membership. Eleven, or even 13 Irish MEPs, could very easily be swamped into irrelevance - but experience has told us that deft working of the political groups, and good committee work, can offset this.

Ireland's new group of MEPs lands at a crucial time. The EU is about to replace the leader of the policy-guiding European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the head of the law-making European Council, Donald Tusk. And for good measure the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi's term is also ending, adding another top job to the list.

Ireland has no representative in the shake down for any of these. But Fine Gael's stellar pole-topping MEP, Mairead McGuinness, will be talked about as a potential European Parliament president, following in the footsteps of Pat Cox who held the post from 2002 to 2004. It is her bad luck that the group to which Fine Gael belongs, the EPP, is much depleted though still the largest.

The shake-out of a new power structure inside the European Parliament, and the parallel process of selecting the three top jobs by EU leaders are interlinked by strange Byzantine politicking and shifting alliances. Last time, in 2014, the parliament and the EU leaders agreed to give the long-time Luxembourg prime minister the top commission job. It launched the so-called "Spitzenkandidaten" (lead candidate) system which sought to inject some democracy by giving the new commission president candidate the support of the majority of elected MEPs. Jean-Claude Juncker, whose candidature was confirmed at an EPP congress in Dublin, was acceptable to both EU decision-making institutions.

This time it is not so simple. Some EU leaders, notably French President Emmanuel Macron, believe the lead candidate system gives too much power to the MEPs.

Also this time, such a lead candidate may not get support from a majority in the European Parliament. German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to keep to the system, not least because the EPP's nominee as lead candidate, Manfred Weber, is a German EPP ally of hers.

Both Macron and Merkel are at loggerheads about this job and who should be the new head of the European Central Bank. Leo Varadkar is honour-bound to back Merkel's man because Fine Gael was part of the EPP process in choosing him. But ultimately the Taoiseach may feel free to gravitate towards Macron's man, the former Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, deemed "a friend of Ireland" in the marathon unfinished EU-UK divorce talks. It's all down for decision on June 21.

Back with the posh horse-trading in the European Parliament, it seems clear that the old EPP-Socialist "grand alliance" does not have the numbers this time. They will need the Liberal group, to which Fianna Fáil is now aligned, and very likely the Green Party in which Ciarán Cuffe is already well known.

It is good that Ireland has people in all the likely controlling groups. It will also be interesting to see Luke Ming Flanagan being joined by Clare Daly and Mick Wallace in the United Left grouping.

Irish Independent

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