Stephen Collins: Varadkar emerges as EU diplomacy natural
Confident Taoiseach engaged with EU debate on Brexit contrasts with shambolic British
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, at a press conference at the Élysée Palace in Paris on Tuesday. Photograph: Kamil Zihnioglu/AP Photo
Brexit is obviously going to have negative consequences for Ireland in the years ahead but the challenge to government and wider society could ultimately have positive implications.
The efforts of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last week to build new alliances among fellow European Union member states is a case in point. An EU without the UK is going to be quite a different place, so it is encouraging to observe Irish politicians and officials preparing the ground for the challenges ahead.
Varadkar has worked on developing a relationship with the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte. According to reports the two of them exchanged notes at last week’s European Council meeting, after the departure of British prime minister Theresa May, before jointly intervening to warn fellow leaders against forcing her into a corner.
That followed the attendance of Varadkar and Rutte at a meeting of the Nordic and Baltic group a day earlier at which the approach to Brexit was the topic for discussion.
Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark are the countries that will be most affected by Brexit, so it is important that they try to exercise as much influence as possible over the EU approach to the talks.
Early in the year one of the arguments for Enda Kenny remaining in the taoiseach’s office was that his invaluable experience of the EU would be vital in the throes of the Brexit negotiations, but Varadkar appears to have taken to EU diplomacy like a duck to water.
Thrives on argument
He is a politician who thrives on argument and discussion rather than rhetoric and has had no inhibitions about making his views known to other EU leaders at summit meetings.
The timing of his intervention in support of giving May some wriggle room was spot on as there is now a general recognition across the EU that the British prime minister’s survival is the best hope of an orderly Brexit. Pushing her too hard at this stage could bring her down and leave the lunatic fringe of the Conservative Party in full control, with appalling consequences.
There is no guarantee that this will not happen one way or another but for the moment May provides the best prospect of a manageable departure of the UK from Europe.
After the Brexit referendum last year there was a danger that in the effort to minimise the impact of Brexit Ireland might have been sucked into the position of being a stalking horse for the UK.
In the event that danger was avoided and Ireland stood unambiguously with our 26 remaining EU partners. That approach was vindicated by the priority given to the Irish issue in the EU negotiating position.
That still doesn’t get over the fact that Brexit is going to happen, barring a political upheaval in Britain, with untold consequences for us. Aside altogether from the impact on trade and the future of the peace process the UK’s departure from the EU will leave this country more detached from our powerful nearest neighbour than at any time in the past few hundred years.
It is not that Ireland and the UK were always close allies at EU level since we both joined in 1973. From the very beginning our interests diverged. By joining the then EEC Ireland managed to wean itself off total dependence on Britain for trade, while the Common Agricultural Policy provided us with decent prices for our staple exports for the first time.
Since then Irish diplomats and successive governments have played a largely successful game in helping to shape policy on issues such as the structural and cohesion funds, which have greatly benefited this country, while the British resisted every effort at closer EU co-operation.
While there is no denying the importance of the UK as an ally on a range of important issues, particularly those relating to free trade and taxation, the notion that Ireland will be left isolated by Brexit misses the whole point of our involvement with Europe.
We are one of the very few EU countries with embassies in every other member state. The decision taken after enlargement to open embassies in all the smaller new countries as well as the big ones such as Poland and Hungary has been vindicated by recent events.
The embassies in Berlin and Paris have also been beefed up, as has the permanent representation in Brussels. That wide network of diplomatic contacts has helped Ireland promote its case in the period since the Brexit referendum.
The warm words exchanged between the Taoiseach and France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, during this week’s meeting in Paris illustrated the importance of developing closer relationships with the big powers of the EU as well as smaller member states with common interests.
The departure of the UK will certainly pose challenges for Ireland on issues such as closer integration and European defence but we long ago learned to stand on our own two feet and have nothing to fear from engaging fully in the development of the EU in the years ahead.
The contrast between the shambolic way the UK is now doing its business and the manner in which our politicians and officials are managing the inevitable difficulties coming our way tells its own story.