Varadkar to join EU centre-right party leaders at Zagreb meeting
Angela Merkel among other figures at European People’s Party annual congress
Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic (left) welcomes president of the European Council Donald Tusk (right), during his visit to the Croatian capital Zagreb, Croatia ahead of tThe European People’s Party (EPP) congress. Photograph: EPA/Antonio Bat
Setbacks for centre-right parties in European and general elections will mean that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will be seen as one of the senior figures when the European People’s Party (EPP) opens its annual congress in Zagreb on Wednesday.
Centre-right and Centre-left parties were the biggest losers throughout Europe in the May parliamentary elections. While the EPP remains the biggest bloc in the parliament, it is no longer the dominant force it was in the previous assembly.
Mr Varadkar will be one of several European heads of government who will attend the congress in the Croatian capital. Undoubtedly the most senior figure is the German chancellor Angela Merkel.
The congress will also see the outgoing European council president Donald Tusk elected as the head of the EPP. The former Polish prime minister will be elected by acclamation as no other candidate was nominated.
The Taoiseach will fly to Croatia on Wednesday afternoon and will attend the opening of the conference later that evening. He will also attend the plenary session of the conference on Thursday morning before returning to Ireland.
The EU Commissioner for Trade Phil Hogan will also attend the congress as will former taoiseach John Bruton, as well as Fine Gael’s MEPs.
The biggest immediate challenge for the EPP will be how to tackle the problem that has arisen with Hungarian prime minster Victor Orbán and his Fidesz party. His government has clamped down on courts, on the media, on immigration and on rights. It has led to the party’s suspension from the EPP and has also prompted an inquiry by the group. However, the process has not yet been finalised.
Fidesz has not been invited to the congress. There is also doubt as to whether the ruling Serbian party, which is an associate member of the EPP, will participate in the congress. There remains a sometimes tense relationship between Serbia and Croatia over 20 years after the end of conflict in the Balkans.
It is also likely that Brexit will be discussed. If there is an electoral mandate that will allow Britain exit the European Union in the wake of the general election there, it will fall to Mr Hogan in his new portfolio to begin negotiations for future relations and a possible trade deal.
Mr Varadkar had originally planned to include a visit to Slovenia into his itinerary but that has been postponed.