Leo marks reign in Spain with a gallery visit

Taoiseach fits in trip to view Picasso’s Guernica after meeting new Spanish PM

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez learned English in Dublin and once attended a Shamrock Rovers match, he told Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at their meeting in Madrid on Thursday. Photograph: REUTERS/Susana Vera

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez learned English in Dublin and once attended a Shamrock Rovers match, he told Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at their meeting in Madrid on Thursday. Photograph: REUTERS/Susana Vera

 

The Taoiseach marked his first anniversary in office by becoming the first EU leader to meet Spain’s new prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, during a visit to Madrid on Thursday.

The two had lunch at Mr Sánchez’s official residence, during which they discussed a range of issues affecting their countries, including Brexit, Catalan independence, the EU budget and migration.

There seemed to be a genuine warmth between the two men as they shook hands and exchanged pleasantries on the steps of the La Moncloa residence. Afterwards, the Taoiseach described it as “one of the warmest” meetings he has had as Irish leader.

He was also keen to point out that his counterpart had shared some fond Irish memories with him.

“I was delighted to learn he spent some time in Ireland learning English as a teenager in South County Dublin,” the Taoiseach said with a smile.

He added that Mr Sánchez had told him of his “fond memories attending a Shamrock Rovers game where they played Man United, so I’m delighted to know there’s a special connection with Ireland as I have with Spain as a regular visitor to this country.”

The Taoiseach indulged his interest in Spanish culture with a lightning trip to see Pablo Picasso’s Guernica in the Reina Sofía Museum, before meeting with members of the local and Irish business community at a reception in the Irish ambassador’s residence.

The previous such top-level bilateral meeting was in Madrid in 2017, when Enda Kenny and Mariano Rajoy, close political allies, were leading their respective countries. Mr Sánchez (46) has been in the post less than two weeks, having unseated his predecessor with a no-confidence motion on June 1st that had been sparked by a slew of corruption scandals affecting Mr Rajoy’s conservatives.

As Mr Varadkar marks a year in office, Brexit tends to dominate his European agenda and after Thursday’s lunch he underlined his dissatisfaction at the state of the UK’s negotiations with the EU on its withdrawal.

“As things stand I can’t say that sufficient progress has been made,” he said, insisting that more headway before a European Council meeting later this month “will be necessary”.

He also sought to clarify comments he made to the Fine Gael parliamentary party earlier in the week to the effect that the “tectonic plates” of politics were shifting, which some interpreted as a claim that a united Ireland was becoming more feasible.

“While the tectonic plates may be shifting they shift slowly,” he said. “And our focus should be on other things, things that are going to happen over the next couple of years, such as Brexit and the absolute imperative that we have the assembly and executive up and running.”

He added: “I think talk about a united Ireland at the moment is unhelpful because it gets mixed up with talk about Brexit.”