Farage fails to hold candle to Varadkar on eve of birthday

Taoiseach charms MEPs in Strasbourg with personal touch about British-Irish relationship

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar responds to claims from British MEP Nigel Farage that the Irish government have helped delay the Brexit process. Video: EU Parliament TV


It’s Leo Varadkar’s birthday on Thursday.

This time last year, he was an ambitious young Cabinet minister with his eye on the top job. On Thursday he turns 39, he is Taoiseach and his first address to the European Parliament has been very warmly received.

Not a bad present for the day that’s in it.

Leo should be very happy.

On Wednesday he travelled to Strasbourg as the first European Union prime minister chosen to speak in a series of debates on the future of Europe. This was both a nod to Ireland’s unique position in the unfolding Brexit saga and recognition of Varadkar’s membership of Europe’s expanding club of “new generation” national leaders.

The Taoiseach likes reminding everyone of his youth. In his speech, he was quick to point out he is “part of a new generation of political leaders born after our countries joined the EU.” The only thing he didn’t do during his three contributions to the debate and comments at a press briefing afterwards was announce his imminent birthday and that he still isn’t 40.

There was quite a decent turnout of MEPs to hear him speak on Wednesday morning. On hand to welcome his fellow Fine Gaeler to the vast chamber – called the Hemicycle – was commissioner Phil Hogan, who has now gone the full EU with his dark blue continental spectacles and looked happy as a cochon in merde among his fellow Brussels Euristocrats in the expensive seats.

Lather of bonhomie

Leo arrived at the door to the chamber in a flurry of flunkies and EU ushers got up in white tie and black tailcoats. But it was MEP Mairéad McGuinness who escorted her boss on to the floor. When he reached the top table he was greeted by the president of the European Parliament, Italian MEP Antonio Tanjani, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, Britain’s commissioner Sir Julian King and back-slapping Big Phil in a lather of bonhomie.

The session started 10 minutes late because lots of photographs had to be taken of the bigwigs with their special guest.

And there right beside them, in his deliciously placed designated seat in the front row reserved for group leaders, was Nigel Farage. He is co-leader of the Eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy. Given their views, Nigel and his colleagues – little national flags flying provocatively from their desks – looked far too happy and satisfied with their lot.

The photographers positioned themselves so as to get Farage into as many of the shots as possible. He was only delighted to co-operate. The former Ukip leader and Brexiteer-in-chief clearly revels in his notoriety and status as the parliament’s resident comic turn.

The Taoiseach took 25 minutes to outline his “vision” for Europe, in a wide-ranging speech which took in issues such a Brexit, climate change, European unity, tax issues and migration. He told MEPs that Ireland relies on their support as the next phase of Brexit negotiations begin and urged Europe not to start any “backsliding.”

Four languages

There was much approval among observers for the fact that Varadkar (being of the new generation and all) spoke in four languages – English, French, German and Irish. “Chapeau!” was the word used in one German report, the author raising his hat in admiration for the Taoiseach.

The Irish contingent were somewhat more blasé about Leo’s accomplishments, being well used to the speeches of Michael D Higgins.

Europe, said one MEP during the debate, “stands at the crossroads between hate and hope”.

In his impressive contributions, Varadkar was very much on the side of hope.

Indeed, if Enda Kenny had his grandfather’s lighthouse, Leo has his mammy’s marriage.

As charming anecdotes go, the Taoiseach has one which will take him around the world and win him international friends. While his main speech said all the right things for a small country anxious to assure its continental partners of undimmed enthusiasm for their joint project, it was his assured response to the points raised by the MEPs during the debate which won him new admirers.

And this, after a typically bullish effort from Farage – “Aaaaay!” – who has a noisy claque of Ukip MEPs who holler appreciatively at his every utterance and cheer when he is called to speak.

If grandstanding Nigel thought he might niggle the Taoiseach by saying he is just a pawn of Europe to be used to fight Brexit, he didn’t, as Leo spoke about his own family to explain the special relationship between Ireland and the UK.

You could feel the atmosphere change in the huge hemicycle (there are rows of desks to accommodate 751 MEPS) when he told his personal story.

“Irish people are very close to British people in so many ways even though sometimes we don’t like to admit that. We have a shared culture and a shared history. That’s very much the experience of my family as well.

“My parents met and fell in love and got married in England. My mum is an Irish nurse, my dad is a doctor from India, they both went to England to build their new lives.

“That’s where my sister was born and she still lives there, in London, with my niece and nephew who are English kids.”

And that’s when MEPs stopped what they were doing and really started to listen. It’s when he won the crowd in possibly his best public performance since becoming Taoiseach.

Standing ovation

This, after Farage had sneered at his guest and his standing in Strasbourg. “Well, Mr Varakar [sic], you are very popular here,” he disdainfully noted, referring to the standing ovation the Taoiseach got from almost all the MEPs. Farage told a bemused Leo he is so devoted to Europe he is “a European Unionist” no matter what “the cost to Ireland might be”.

The Taoiseach is also, apparently, in cahoots with Tony Blair in an effort to derail Brexit.

But apart from the Farage bluster, MEPs were queuing up to assure the Irish of their support. If Leo was pledging solidarity to Europe, his “dear friends” in Europe were returning it in spades.

Juncker, who had been venomously eyeing Farage from his seat across the aisle, couldn’t speak highly enough of “my good friend Leo”.

“Know that we will always be behind you. We are all Irish,” declared MEP Guy Verhofstadt in a sentiment repeated by most MEPs who spoke. One of them quoted Yeats, another expressed “solidarity with the Emerald Isle”.

After an unhurried press briefing (where the BBC wanted to know if he was wearing novelty socks – we’re so over the socks; Leo rolled his eyes and said he wasn’t) the Taoiseach attended a lunch hosted by McGuinness, who is one of the parliament’s vice-presidents.

Among the guests were European ombudsman Emily O’Reilly and Tony Murphy, who was appointed to the European Court of Auditors on Wednesday.

But perhaps the most surprising attendee was Farage, who seemed somewhat taken aback by Leo’s conciliatory nature. It seems he is more used to antagonism than charm at the European Parliament. The two men had a tête-à-tête before the group tucked into filet de bourgogne Irlandais à la Guinness.

Nigel tucked into his Irish beef and said he was very fond of Ireland and that his first wife was from Kerry.

At the end of the meal, McGuinness toasted the Taoiseach in advance of his 39th birthday on Thursday.

And Nigel joined in.

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