Wednesday 21 November 2018

Kevin Doyle: 'Support for Ireland is promised - but it's not top of everyone's agenda'

  

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. REUTERS/Aly Song/Pool
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. REUTERS/Aly Song/Pool
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Finland's Prime Minister Juha Sipilä has joined the list of European leaders ready to declare their undying support for Ireland in the Brexit negotiations.

He had a busy day yesterday, welcoming seven political leaders to his home - one by one - for talks on all sorts of issues. But it was Leo Varadkar who got the salmon sandwiches at their freshest.

The Taoiseach flew into Helsinki late on Tuesday night for a European People's Party (EPP) conference. Prior to the conference, he made a pit-stop at the prime minister's official residence for a brief but purposeful meeting.

The two leaders made small talk about how they stayed up into the early hours watching results flow in from the US mid-term elections. However, there was only one thing on Mr Varadkar's agenda: Brexit.

Amid continued confusion in London, the Taoiseach came to Helsinki seeking to shore up EU support.

The EPP tags itself as the "largest family" in European politics, including 11 heads of state, ranging from Germany's Angela Merkel to Hungary's Viktor Orbán.

After his breakfast tête-à-tête with the Taoiseach, Mr Sipilä told reporters: "There is 100pc support from Finland to Ireland. You can count on our support. I have a feeling that all 27 countries are united behind the Irish question."

There's little to suggest his observations of unity are anything but accurate. The solidarity shown to Ireland over the past two years has been stoic. Country after country has waved the green flag to welcome Mr Varadkar, and Enda Kenny before him. But as we enter the endgame, it is crucial for the Government not to take any of this for granted.

On the opening day of the EPP summit, there was very little talk about Brexit, never mind Ireland's woes.

At the main press event of the day, journalists from all over Europe posed questions to key figureheads for 30 minutes.

Whether Mr Orbán should be thrown out of the EPP for his extremist views was the most common query.

EPP president Joseph Daul reckoned every family has an "enfant terrible" and it was better to talk to them than toss them out. For the record, Mr Varadkar has a similar view.

There were questions on the EU's relationships with the Ukraine, Romania and Germany. Immigration came up repeatedly, but nobody touched on the UK's impending exit.

Even at a debate moderated by Cork TD Dara Murphy on 'prosperity for everyone', there was no mention of the topic dominating Irish airwaves.

And as many delegates noted, election season is coming soon in Europe.

So the reality about the solidarity on display right now is that it may well be temporary, which is why the 'backstop' that will prevent an Irish Border cannot be.

Brexit is not the be all and end all of European politics. Many countries have already moved on to what they see as more threatening topics. Others never really engaged at all.

In these final hours before a deal may be agreed, the Taoiseach must ensure that terms and conditions under which the backstop comes into play and is ended are indeed 'cast-iron'.

And even when the deal is struck, Ireland must continue the ministerial roadshow around European capitals to ensure the EU27's solidarity remains just that, solid. But leaders change. This is the last EPP meeting at which Angela Merkel will be leader of her party. And Mr Sipilä's government is facing elections in April.

The crash course in Brexit given to European leaders in the past two years may have to be repeated again and again 'unless and until' the situation is fully resolved.

Irish Independent

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