An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was at pains last week to distance himself from reports that he was being considered for the top job in the European Union – President of the Commission. Amid reports that he was in line to replace Jean-Claude Juncker, both the Taoiseach and his party seemed very eager to rule him out of the running. “I’m flattered”, he told RTÉ, “but I have a job, as Taoiseach of Ireland”.
In the end, the top jobs in Europe were divided up, after a weekend of intense negotiation, between the German defence minister, Ursula Von Der Leyen, who will become the next EU commission President; Charles Michel, the acting Belgian Prime Minister, who will chair the European Council; and Spanish socialist Josep Borrell, who will take over the role of EU foreign affairs co-ordinator.
It is not an inspiring line-up.
Mr Borrell has a conviction for insider trading. Frau Von Der Leyen’s record as German defence minister includes the embarrassing fact that German soldiers, on her watch, went into military exercises carrying broomsticks instead of guns, because her ministry had failed to equip them properly. Opinion polls in Germany say that she leaves the country as its most unpopular politician, and the newspapers there are commending Angela Merkel for finding such a creative way to get rid of her.
The other big news out of Brussels this week was the announcement that the EU had agreed a trade deal with the Mecrosur countries in South America which will see the importation of 99,000 tonnes of Brazilian beef to the EU, with, presumably, 99,000 Volkswagens and Audis and Renaults going the other way.
The deal is great news for European Industry – and terrible news for the animals and tribes of the Amazon rainforest, which continues to be eradicated at breath-taking pace to make way for Brazilian beef farms. In one fell swoop, the EU has all but cancelled out the effect of its policies on climate change. In the meantime, the Irish beef industry will suffer, and Phil Hogan is, at the time of writing, expected to be re-appointed as Ireland’s EU commissioner, for some reason.
The European Union has vast powers, most of which were voted to it by the Irish people on the recommendation of our politicians. Ireland cannot veto the Mecrosur deal because that right to veto was given away under the Lisbon Treaty, on the recommendation of, amongst others, Leo Varadkar and Phil Hogan. Ireland’s future will be hugely impacted by Brexit, and the negotiation of that exit is in the hands of the European Union, not the Irish Government. European leaders, including President Macron of France, continue to push for more integration in areas like taxation, and the new Commission President is a committed advocate for, in her words, an EU army.
All of this begs the question: why was Mr Varadkar so keen to turn the job down? As President of the EU Commission, he would become, overnight, an international politician with vast power and influence over world events, and with vastly more power to protect Ireland’s interests in a range of areas than he presently has. Even had he ultimately not been chosen, wouldn’t it have made sense to actively seek the job? What better hand would Ireland have in Brexit negotiations than with an Irishman in charge of the EU?
How better could we protect our farmers, and the climate, from bad trade deals, than with an Irish Taoiseach getting promoted to an international job responsible for those things?
The new Commission President is a committed advocate for, in her words, an EU army”
Mr Varadkar is not the first Irish leader to ostentatiously turn down the job. Bertie Ahern was considered a candidate on several occasions and refused. And it’s not a pur ely Irish phenomenon either, because there was not a long line of outstanding applicants for these top jobs, which is why we ended up with the least popular politician in Germany and a convicted Spanish fraudster holding them.
As for Ireland’s EU Commissioner job, it seems likely that the Government will reward Phil Hogan for failing so miserably to protect Irish agriculture by appointing him for five more years. I say this with no malice towards Mr Hogan – but is there nobody better? Does nobody else want the job?
Irish politicians never tire of saying, in the context of Brexit, that Ireland is totally committed to the European Union, but when it comes down to it, they seem to be as fond of taking important jobs in Brussels as Mr Farage.
Then again, when you look at the Irish health service, when you look at our crime rates, when you look at this Government’s relentless campaigns to eradicate any trace of faith from public life, perhaps the other 500 million EU citizens had a lucky escape. We’ll just have to trust the German lady, as usual.