Enda Kenny might have to reconsider top European role

Opinion: Taoiseach’s close working relationship with Cameron could be a key factor in European Council president selection

‘As in a Rubik’s cube puzzle, every move changes the complexion of the wider task. Despite Kenny’s preference for staying at home, it is within this constellation that his name might just emerge.’  German  Chancellor Angela Merkel and Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

‘As in a Rubik’s cube puzzle, every move changes the complexion of the wider task. Despite Kenny’s preference for staying at home, it is within this constellation that his name might just emerge.’ German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 00:01

European leaders gather in Brussels on Wednesday week for yet another round of bargaining over top posts in the EU institutions. In question now is whether an opening emerges for Enda Kenny. This seems unlikely, although it can’t be altogether ruled out.

The Taoiseach was mentioned as a compromise candidate before EU leaders elected former Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker as chief of the European Commission, in defiance of British objections. The European Parliament presidency then went to German socialist MEP Martin Schulz. The next vacancies are for the presidency of the European Council, currently held by Herman Van Rompuy, and EU foreign policy chief, held since 2009 by Cathy Ashton.

Ringmaster

So is Kenny really in the running to succeed Van Rompuy as the ringmaster of Europe’s prime ministers, presidents and chancellors? The job is essentially that of chairman of Europe’s 28 leaders with a mandate to pursue consensus around the table and iron out their many divisions. The chatter in Brussels and beyond suggests the Taoiseach might well be in the frame, but that he does not wish to move. Therefore, he is not in contention in a big way. If asked, however, he might have to reconsider.

In Government Buildings they wearily spurn such talk. “I’m boycotting that question,” snaps one senior figure. As per his own remarks in Berlin two days ago, the Taoiseach’s focus is on the home front. On the Fine Gael back benches and in the party high command, the sense remains that his attention is fixed on the Cabinet reshuffle, recasting the agreement with Labour and the general election campaign to come.

After a poor result in local and European elections and no less than five weeks of introspection within the junior Coalition party, the need for the Government to regain momentum is clear. Hence quick moves yesterday to set up talks early on Monday morning between the Taoiseach and the new Labour leader.

Yet this is to survey the scene through an Irish prism. In Europe, meanwhile, the task of filling top posts is a balancing act on a grand scale. At issue are questions of politics, geography and gender, as in a Cabinet reshuffle in the Irish setting. There is huge pressure to appoint a woman and – fully 10 years after the EU’s historic enlargement – someone from the newer member states.

Competence

Leaving aside the key question of competence, the ideal package requires a balance on as many as four axes: left-right; north-south-east-west; boy-girl; and euro or non-euro. As in a Rubik’s cube puzzle, every move changes the complexion of the wider task. Despite Kenny’s preference for staying at home, it is within this constellation that his name might just emerge.

Juncker is a man of the centre-right. He was the candidate of the European People’s Party, Fine Gael’s affiliate in Brussels, which won the most seats in the European election. His selection as commission chief sits alongside the choice of the socialist Schulz as Parliament president.

Similar balancing is likely in respect of the Van Rompuy and Ashton posts.

There has been speculation for weeks that the council presidency might go to Denmark’s social democrat prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who has solid European credentials. Although EU leaders want to loosen the male grip on senior jobs, she dismisses the idea. Men in the mix include Andrus Ansip, former Estonian premier and a liberal.

Non-euro

French president François Hollande insists the post should not go to a non-euro country, a big difficulty for Thorning-Schmidt. Would a Thorning-Schmidt appointment mean someone else taking charge of summits of euro zone leaders? Such summits are rare, usually on the margins of full EU summits, though major questions are discussed. The work is currently undertaken by Van Rompuy, former premier of euro member Belgium.

Choosing Thorning-Schmidt might still give some succour to the isolated British premier David Cameron, who is set against the scope and pace of the increased economic integration under way in the euro zone.

A further difficulty with Thorning-Schmidt, however, is that two of the names most frequently linked to the foreign policy post are socialists. The latest is Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans. He follows Italian minister Federica Mogherini, an early favourite whose prospects are receding due to Italian reticence over sanctions against Russia’s interference in Ukraine.

It goes without saying that an EPP nomination to the foreign portfolio would close off any centre-right nomination into the Van Rompuy post. A distinct possibility here is Bulgaria’s well-regarded EU commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, an EPP member who held a ranking position in the World Bank. Appointing Georgieva to the foreign post would increase gender balance, and hand a top EU job for the first time to a former eastern bloc country. Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, also of the EPP, was a contender but his campaign sank when he was caught on tape talking ill of Cameron.

In-out referendum

With Cameron himself seeking to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership in advance of an in-out referendum, some observers believe he would be very happy for Kenny to succeed Van Rompuy. This is grounded in his close working alliance with the Taoiseach, and Kenny’s obvious interest in keeping Britain in the EU. That might not fundamentally appeal to countries such as Germany, yet EU leaders are very keen these days to keep Cameron sweet.

Even if Kenny does have the advantage of euro zone and EPP membership, there is always his own reluctance to move. Another unavoidable consideration is the resignation of outgoing tánaiste Eamon Gilmore. No matter how it was dressed up, it would be exceedingly difficult politically to sell the departure of both Taoiseach and tánaiste after a big electoral setback. In sum, it looks like Kenny is staying put.

Arthur Beesley is Political News Editor

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