On the offensive in pursuit of that elusive bank debt deal


EUROPEAN DIARY:With under 100 days to go before Ireland’s presidency of the EU, the countdown has begun in earnest, writes ARTHUR BEESLEY

ENDA KENNY must have been up and about before 5am yesterday to make the 6.50am Aer Lingus flight to Brussels.

If the Taoiseach felt at all fatigued during a hectic day of EU meetings, he showed no sign of it. He finished the visit with the speech last night to the Institute of European affairs before flying home on the government jet.

Kenny was here in the cold and wet for talks on Ireland’s imminent presidency of the EU. With him were Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and nine other Government luminaries.

Ministers gathered in Ireland’s permanent representation to the EU on Rue Froissart before being ferried up the street in Volkswagen people-carriers to the Berlaymont base of the EU Commission. Michael Noonan was in the room next to where the Taoiseach and Tánaiste gave a press conference. Joan Burton sat in the lobby under a portrait of President Michael D Higgins.

Absent from the group was Minister for Health James Reilly, whose problems flared up again with the disclosure of his link to Balbriggan developer Séamus Murphy. While the embattled Reilly doggedly fought his ground in Dublin, the Taoiseach went on the offensive in Brussels in pursuit of that elusive bank debt deal. The official position, of course, was that the delegation was in town primarily to discuss Ireland’s preparations for its prime role in EU affairs next year. “This is regarded by us as a real curtain-raiser for the Irish presidency on the 1st of January,” Kenny said.

Moments later, he would say that he had not come to Brussels for deep talks on the banking question. “It’s not a case of having a substantive discussion about bank debt or debt sustainability today.” But the Taoiseach still laid down a marker for those in the German, Dutch and Finnish governments who would deny Ireland relief on legacy bank assets.

“Clearly, the decision of the European Council was based on fact and on the evidence before the eyes of the leaders of the 27 and it wasn’t in my view based on problems that might arise some time in the future,” he said.

“Clearly, there are problems with a number of countries and those problems have arisen over a past period of time so in that sense the understanding here was that the decision of the council was to deal with problems on the table now and that have arisen in the past.”

Kenny met José Manuel Barroso, chief of the European Commission, for a 40-minute tête-à-tête before the wider Government group met the college of commissioners. The two men know each other well by now with Barroso directly addressing the Taoiseach as “my dear Enda” and “my good friend”.

When Kenny addressed the plenary session of the commission and cabinet, he spoke first in Irish. This led Barroso to say the Europeans were well accustomed to “exotic” languages, at which point economics commissioner Olli Rehn said the most exotic language of all was spoken by his former colleague Charlie McCreevy.

A working lunch followed. With lobster tail on the menu and fillet of swordfish and eggplant caviar, this was not an occasion for deficit sinner’s soup and cutback grill. The wine was a 2007 Chardonnay from Alois Lageder in northern Italy.

Onwards then to meet again with reporters, an occasion for Barroso to say EU leaders must stick to their commitments on bank debt. When it inevitably came to the tricky topic of whether the storied “deal” at the June summit actually embraced legacy debt, the commission chief said he did not want to engage in semantics and then read out the summit conclusions.

At this point attention was again turning to affairs back home. Labour members of the delegation are said to have taken a dim view of the news that two of the party’s MEPs were calling for Dr Reilly’s head. The Taoiseach said the Minister retained his confidence. “The Government have given absolute backing to Minister Reilly,” he added.

The Kenny entourage then left to go across the street for talks with European Council president Herman Van Rompuy.

No fewer than three summits are scheduled before the end of the year and another four are in store during the six months of the Irish presidency. Amid argument and doubt over the scope of plans for a new euro zone “banking union” and the certainty of conflict over the next EU budget round, the agenda is already crowded.

There will be more of this, plenty more. With under 100 days to go before the presidency begins, the countdown starts in earnest. Although the October deadline for a bank deal fell by the way, the campaign continues. Expect further demands. “We use the opportunity all the time . . . whoever we’re talking to,” said Gilmore.