Senior Fine Gael sources have dismissed the idea that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar could become the next president of the European Commission, echoing scepticism from Irish sources in Brussels about the mooted transfer of Varadkar to the most senior role in the EU's civil service and policy engine.
Varadkar’s name has surfaced in recent reports as a potential candidate and was floated again in the early hours of Monday as a possible compromise after EU leaders remained deadlocked on a slate of senior appointments.
However, conversations with several senior sources in Dublin and Brussels suggest that the move is unlikely to be realised for reasons which have their roots in both places.
They say the emergence of the Fine Gael leader’s name as a possible candidate is not unexpected given the relatively small number of potential candidates among European People’s Party (EPP) – the grouping to which Fine Gael belongs – prime ministers. However, two people with knowledge of the mechanics of EU summits say that Varadkar’s name would not have been publicly floated without his tacit consent.
Even if Varadkar had allowed his name to be circulated, there is little chance of his nomination becoming a firm proposal, according to sources. Irish officials say that there is no sign at all of pressure on the Taoiseach from his fellow EU leaders. He would also be considered relatively inexperienced for the role.
In public as well as in private Varadkar has backed EPP candidate Manfred Weber, even though most Brussels observers consider the German MEP's candidacy to be dead in the water.
Even Weber's party colleague, German chancellor Angela Merkel, was reportedly ready to back his rival, Dutch Socialist Franz Timmermans, for the commission role in a late-night compromise proposed on Sunday night/Monday morning. But Varadkar was reportedly one of the hold-outs – further evidence, perhaps, of waning Merkel influence among her fellow EU leaders.
Indeed, one of the reasons for the European Council’s inconclusive discussions is the decline of Merkel’s deal making – and deal enforcing – capacities.
View from Dublin
In Dublin, meanwhile, two Cabinet ministers said their expectation was that when Weber's candidacy inevitably faltered, the Irish Government would be happy to back Michel Barnier, the French EPP politician who has been the commission's chief Brexit negotiator. Barnier's name has previously been floated as a possible commission chief, but has not yet gained any momentum.
There is little or no sense among senior Fine Gael people in Dublin that they are about to lose their leader through an unexpected European appointment. Ministers who spoke privately did not believe either that Varadkar would be offered the job, or that he would take it. Their view is rooted in the belief that if Varadkar was to leave, it would be a crushing blow to the party.
Varadkar's sudden exit would almost certainly lead to a general election, as there is little or no expectation that Fianna Fáil would allow the election of another Fine Gael taoiseach. Fine Gael would then be left in a position where it would quickly have to select a new leader and prepare for a snap general election. "We wouldn't let him go," joked one Fine Gael Minister.