Friday 15 November 2019

John Downing: 'We face a major political void with the exit of EU sages Tusk and Juncker'

Guiding lights: EU leaders Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk will soon leave their posts
Guiding lights: EU leaders Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk will soon leave their posts
John Downing

John Downing

The French sign at a double-tracked railway level crossing - 'Un train peut en cacher un autre' - warns us simply that "one train can hide another". But the warning phrase can also be used figuratively.

It seems appropriate, as two big EU deadlines were missed in the past two days. The first came quietly at 11pm on Thursday when happily the third Brexit witching-hour had been rendered void by the extension until January 31 next.

But the Brexit hullabaloo, and the spin-off UK general election, hid another important missed deadline.

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Yesterday, November 1, was the date for the new policy- guiding European Commission to be sworn in at the EU Courts of Justice in Luxembourg.

In practice, delay here means that Ireland's EU Commissioner, Phil Hogan, does not yet move on to take charge of international trade. Instead, he keeps his wellingtons for the moment, continuing as agriculture commissioner, along with all his colleagues until December 1 at least.

Similarly, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will hang in for at least another few weeks, as will EU summits chairman Donald Tusk. Over the past 30 months both these men, along with chief negotiator Michel Barnier, have become household names in Ireland and they have each shown wisdom and strong leadership over Brexit.

Despite years of speculation they would "betray" Ireland when hardy came to hardy, they have done no such thing. At the close of a crucial EU leaders summit a fortnight ago, all three spoke credibly with real passion about how Ireland's interests were central to their concerns all through the ongoing process.

Their departure will leave something of a vacuum and the replacements for the "two EU sages" Juncker and Tusk will have big shoes to fill. Mr Juncker's replacement at the law-making European Council, the outgoing Belgian premier Charles Michel, has a relatively uncomplicated passage to the succession.

But Mr Juncker's successor, the former German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen, has it all to do before she can even get her legs under the table.

While Ireland's Phil Hogan quietly glided through a European Parliament ratification hearing on September 30, three others - from France, Romania and Hungary - failed the test.

Now the president designate has formally nominated France's Thierry Breton and Hungary's Olivér Várhelyi as members of her commission. And this pair face new parliament ratification hearings next Wednesday and Thursday, examining the candidates' declarations of financial interests and potential conflicts of interest.

Things are far more complicated in Romania, which is without a fully functioning government and there is considerable disagreement about who should go to Brussels.

Then there is the strange case of the UK, which Ms Von der Leyen insists must by law send a commissioner, even if it's only for a few weeks until January 31.

Boris Johnson says - wait for it - he doesn't want to nominate anyone. And in a curious grace note, it is largely Ireland's fault that all member states must nominate a commissioner.

One of the "fixes" after Irish voters rejected the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, which included a slimmed-down commission, was that all member countries got to keep their commissioner.

This one must seem like breaking stones for the commission's president designate. She will hope to get two more on board next week - but it is quite possible the interim caretaker commission could continue beyond December 1.

After Ms Von der Leyen does get installed there will still be Brexit and all its complications. Beyond that there is a host of issues the other member states want to get stuck into as they see themselves in a post-Brexit EU.

Chief of these is a new EU budget plan covering the seven years 2021-2027, plugging an annual €13bn hole left by the EU-UK divorce. Germany is already baulking at suggestions that it takes up most of the slack.

That issue has huge implications for Ireland which will have to step its contributions.

Irish Independent

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