Brexit fatigue seeps in as Fine Gael allies gather in Zagreb

The issue is falling off the list of concerns for Fine Gael’s partners in European People’s Party

European People’s Party members during the party’s summit in Zagreb, Croatia, on Thursday. Photograph: Damir Sencar/AFP via Getty Images

European People’s Party members during the party’s summit in Zagreb, Croatia, on Thursday. Photograph: Damir Sencar/AFP via Getty Images

 

During rainy days in Zagreb, Brexit was mentioned just five times – always in passing – during the two-day gathering of the European People’s Party. For his star turn on stage, even Taoiseach Leo Varadkar barely mentioned it.

So is this fatigue; or just a lull before the British elections? “It’s a bit of all of them,” said Fine Gael MEP Seán Kelly. “When I was in in Brussels last week, it was the first time I noticed no reference to Brexit. It’s the same here.

“People are fed up with it,” said the Kerry-based MEP, one of many to attend the gathering of the EPP, which represents 40 Christian Democrat-leaning parties across the union.

Whatever its ties, the EPP has divisions, too, especially over issues such as immigration and the rule of law, illustrated by the suspension from the EPP of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, and his Fidesc party.

While the environment was the theme in Zagreb, the politics was about the election of outgoing European Council president Donald Tusk as its new president. Once elected, the Polish politician threw the gauntlet down to Orban.

“Under no circumstances can we give away the sphere of security and order to political populists, manipulators and autocrats who lead people to believe that freedom cannot be reconciled with security,” he declared.

But Orban is not alone in his views. Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, all tan and boot-polish hair, called for a unified European army to “deter the waves of migrants from African countries”.

Controversy

So, far from being a local squabble in Wexford, the controversy over Verona Murphy and direct provision centres represents the tail of a comet that has been trailing through Europe over the past few years.

Often the reality is that the views of some parties in the EPP are closer to that of Orban than that of Tusk or Angela Merkel, even if Fine Gael is in the latter camp.

“I fundamentally disagree with the tone and content of [Berlusconi’s] views,” says Fine Gael MEP Maireád McGuinness. People who are desperate and fleeing poverty and war will not be contained by any army.”

Speaking to delegates about Brexit, solidarity is shown for Ireland, but there is little knowledge, especially from those coming from one-time Communist countries in eastern Europe.

Lidia Pereira (28), a Portuguese MEP who chairs the EPP’s youth wing, says support for Ireland is constant: “Every country of the 27 was behind Ireland and Ireland will not be alone.”

Pereira wants close ties with the UK. So, too, does Ireland’s Phil Hogan, the incoming trade commissioner. For others in the EPP, however, talks will be difficult especially if Britain departs from EU rules on labour, travel and migration.

“Britain will be a direct competitor in agriculture, banking and car manufacturing,” said a senior EPP official, speaking anonymously. “There is no way Boris Johnson can transform the UK into a Singapore on the North Sea. It won’t be accepted by others.”

‘Peripheral discussion’

However, that same official was confident that Ireland will not have problems living without the UK after Brexit: “The Irish approach to their relationship with Europe from the start of Brexit has been a huge success.

“It has taken a peripheral discussion into the centre of agenda and made it an existential issue about being part of the club. Ireland has been attracting more attention in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Germany than ever before.”

However, Seán Kelly acknowledges that difficulties might lie ahead: “We probably have to stand on our own feet, and won’t be able to piggyback with the UK any more.

“The English language, whether people like it or not, is the language of communication. We can turn that into an advantage in terms of attracting foreign investment into Europe as well,” the Kerry MEP told The Irish Times.

However, Maireád McGuinness is worried that Johnson, if he returns to power, does not want close ties with the EU after Brexit: “I think that we may face the greatest difficulty at the end of 2020. The worst might yet be to come.”

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