Saturday 24 August 2019

John Downing: 'So, Leo learns 'EU hero' and 'local zero' are perilously close'

  

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrives ahead of a European Union leaders summit on May 28, 2019 to discuss who should run the EU executive for the next five years, in Brussels. Photo: John Thys/Pool via REUTERS
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrives ahead of a European Union leaders summit on May 28, 2019 to discuss who should run the EU executive for the next five years, in Brussels. Photo: John Thys/Pool via REUTERS
John Downing

John Downing

On May 21, 2004, then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and the European Commission president Romano Prodi were representing the EU at a function in the Kremlin.

Right enough, that's not a reach-out-and-grab-you opener. But stay with me - things can only improve.

Mr Ahern was in Moscow because Ireland held the six-month rotating EU presidency, which won many plaudits. The avuncular Italian boss of the Commission suggested the Taoiseach should make a bid to succeed him in Brussels. In fact, Ahern was at the time rated as a potential Commission president in many of the EU capitals - but he did not want the job.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

History also records that, as soon as the Kremlin event ended, "the Bert" was on a plane back to Dublin. That same evening he was seen knocking on doors in Cabra, canvassing for the local elections.

And in those same local elections, on June 11, 2004, voters delivered Fianna Fáil the biggest drubbing thus far in its history, with a national vote of 32pc and the loss of 20pc of council seats. In a matter of weeks, Ahern went from "Euro hero to local zero" - albeit with ratings the Soldiers of Destiny can only dream of these days.

This strange-but-true anecdote comes to mind again, as Leo Varadkar's name is cited among those who might succeed Jean-Claude Juncker this autumn as leader of the policy-guiding Commission in Brussels. There are a number of comparisons, but they do require some adjustment and context.

Varadkar, like a forerunner with whom he is increasingly compared, has said he is not interested in heading off to Brussels, and we accept that. But in this instance, while the current Taoiseach is a credible potential Commission president, his candidature is right now something of a long shot because he is a largely untested newcomer, who only came to his first EU summit on June 22, 2017.

But worse compromise candidates have emerged from the Byzantine EU horse-trading on big jobs.

Go back a little further to 1994 when the EU needed a replacement for the legendary Jacques Delors. They chose the ultimate compromise in Jacques Santer, the unknown premier of Luxembourg, whose Commission crashed out of business in March 1999.

Back up to date, the key comparison for Varadkar is that politicians grappling with the domestic day-to-day are often better admired abroad. When British PM Margaret Thatcher was tottering on the brink in UK politics in the early 1990s she was an icon further afield, especially in the former East Bloc.

In Brussels, they are not fixated with Irish health, housing and broadband - but we are.

Irish Independent

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

Don't Miss