As a parliamentary set-piece, Roberta Metsola’s hour-long visit to the massed ranks of TDs and senators could not have been better. The hosts put out their best welcome – and the guest delivered her most eloquent and generous response. There was absolutely no harm and much potential good.
But away from the Leinster House bubble, the question must be asked: What relevance – if any – has European Parliament president Metsola’s visit for Ireland’s Brexit hopes and fears, just as compromise negotiations on administering Northern Ireland’s special trade status reach their inevitable end point?
Both Brussels and London have strongly denied a technical fix has been put together, and that the negotiators’ work is done. But repeated echoes from both sides are telling us that now it is over to the politicians to put an emerging technical deal into digestible language and get it past the “awkward squad”.
That essentially means the still struggling UK prime minister Rishi Sunak selling an expected huge reduction in checks on British goods into the North to his Conservative Party’s Europhobic wing – the self-styled European Research Group (ERG).
The DUP – blocking a Belfast power-sharing resumption over the row – has far less London oomph these days and will be depending on the ERG to help it here.
But don’t forget the other side of things. Any compromise deal on the North requires European approval. That means the other 26 EU governments and also the European Parliament, a body with incomplete powers but a heft of political influence.
Thus, there is considerable value in Metsola’s message that the EU can learn lessons from how Ireland has dealt with the challenges of Brexit and even more from her insistence that the EU “will not leave your side” on the issue.
The impressive Maltese politician, the youngest person and only the third woman to head the democratically elected European Parliament, stressed the shared common values between the EU and Ireland, including brokering peace and securing Northern Ireland’s special trade status.
“When Ireland faced uncertainty in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, your position was our position. We went through all of that together and we will stay together.” Her words were both accurate and encouraging.
“The story of Ireland is one of beating the odds, of struggle, sacrifice, defiance, and emerging stronger – lessons that Europe will need,” she added.
Given that Ireland is marking 50 full years of engagement with our EU neighbours, there were valid arguments for some reflection. Leo Varadkar said EU membership had “amplified” Ireland’s voice in the world, and that funding for local communities and access to the single market had transformed the country.
Brexit’s self-imposed penalty restrictions on British citizens reminded everyone of the EU advantages realised over the past 50 years.
Rumours about an emerging compromise deal on customs data sharing regarding the North hint at a likely breakthrough between two sides who have been at loggerheads since London reneged on a deal twice agreed.
In December EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen was on a similar mission. The German politician was well-received but there was more warmth for Metsola. Both were genuine and valid occasions.