Sunday 18 August 2019

John Downing: 'This share-out - especially Ms Lagarde's appointment - looks like Irish good news'


Christine Lagarde. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Christine Lagarde. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
John Downing

John Downing

The late and great Irish poet, Michael Hartnett, famously inflamed opinions as he vowed to write only in Irish, dubbing English "the perfect language to sell pigs in". But, as a good west Limerick man, Hartnett also knew the immediate and longer-term value of a good pig deal.

For three difficult days, the EU leaders abandoned all pretence of high diplomacy, and turned to very basic wheeler-dealing. Now we have a four-way package of appointments which still has one major hurdle to cross.

But viewed from places like west Limerick, and all other places across the island of Ireland, we must ask: How do this new shower of EU top brass look from an Irish point of view?

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The one appointment which immediately jumps out will be France's Christine Lagarde, named the new head of the European Central Bank (ECB). As head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), she was a leading light in the grim trio of EU Commission-IMF-ECB who corrected the Irish Government's homework during the 2010-2012 bailout.

The task gave her great insights into Ireland's economic strengths and weaknesses and she established a good personal rapport with then-finance minister Michael Noonan on Ireland's journey out of perdition. The IMF is generally remembered as the more flexible entity in that notorious so-called 'Troika'.

As to the person who is set to get the number one job in this package, the patrician German Defence Minister Ursula Von der Leyen, we can tell you little enough.

She speaks fluent English and French along with her native German, and may be something of an Anglophile.

Against that, the EU Commission president designate is a trusted confidante of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has thus far been sympathetic to Ireland on Brexit. We must begin by extending the benefit of the doubt at very least.

There is no doubting the man who replaces the outgoing EU council president Donald Tusk. The current caretaker Belgian premier, Charles Michel, is so far sound on the Brexit issue, and well versed in Ireland's concerns.

The final job, head of EU foreign policy, is a position more of prestige than power. It goes to current Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell from the socialist group.

Once this not-very-pretty deal came out in Brussels around teatime yesterday, the focus switched to the French border city of Strasbourg where the new Euro MEPs will today pick their new president. Three of these four jobs require the European Parliament's assent, the exception being the foreign policy chief.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar stayed with the main pack in his Christian Democrat, EPP family, insisting they should not give away the commission leader's job so easily. The outgoing Commission boss, Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, clearly "got" Ireland and our Brexit concerns, setting the bar very high for his replacement.

We can but hope.

Another potential EC president, Brexit chief negotiator Michel Barnier, did not come home much to Irish diplomats' chagrin.

But UK media noted that Ms Von der Leyen has described Brexit as "a burst bubble of hollow promises by populists". We can hope her appointment means no change on Brexit.

If the European Parliament numbers were different Ireland's stellar MEP Mairead McGuinness would be mentioned as a potential assembly president. That may be for another time.

Like many's the pig-selling deal, this one did not look especially edifying. But if it is a sustainable deal, which makes its way through a new-look European Parliament - that will do for Ireland. Above all else, we need a stable European Union to face the challenges ahead.

The new policy-guiding EU Commission is due to take office on November 1 next. That's the day after the next Brexit deadline.

Irish Independent

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