Leo Varadkar got a special welcome back from his fellow EU leaders at the start of the Brussels summit, but there was no mistaking who was the star of the show.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy stormed into town, addressing first the European Parliament and then the heads of EU governments gathered at the European Council, the EU’s premier decision-making body.
At a packed press conference with European Council president Charles Michel and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, Zelenskiy made public his requests – more support, more weapons and EU membership talks to start this year. “And when I say this year, I mean this year. 2023,” he joked, except he wasn’t joking at all.
That received a polite but firm pushback from von der Leyen, who responded there were no dates – it was, she said, a “merit-based process”. But the mood was upbeat, and Zelenskiy proclaimed himself happy with the visit.
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Then he was gone, and the summit returned to its main scheduled business: migration. This is the first time since the interminable Brexit summits of 2017-2019 that the subject being discussed by EU leaders in Brussels is also an issue of topical politics in Ireland.
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Four factors – the chronic shortage of housing, the arrival of more than 70,000 refugees from the war in Ukraine, a sudden rise in the numbers of people claiming asylum in Ireland and a series of protests against the accommodation of refugees in specific places – have come together to catapult migration to the top of the political agenda.
Privately, many politicians believe that while hard support for the far-right is very limited in Ireland, worries about migration are more widespread. The Government appears to have two responses – firstly, to make the system of deciding on applications for asylum more efficient and be more energetic in seeking to deport those who are unsuccessful (this doesn’t apply to Ukrainians as they are automatically grated temporary refugee status); and secondly, to talk a lot tougher on the issue of migration in the hope that this will dissuade some asylum seekers from coming in the first place. It was this second part of the strategy that was plainly on view in Brussels.
“We need to be firm, fair and hard,” Varadkar told journalists as he entered the summit on Thursday. “We need to be fair with refugees because refugees are welcome in Ireland, and people that need our protection should get it. We also need to be firm with people who come to Ireland with a false story or false pretence.
Varadkar said he wouldn’t want his comments to be perceived as a hardening of the Government’s tone on immigration. But there’s little doubt that’s what it is
“We need to be firm with them and say that we are going to make a quick decision on your application and that we will return you to your country of origin. People expect that. And we also need to be hard on human traffickers because we should decide who enters our country, not criminal gangs.”
In fairness to Varadkar, he was also at pains to stress that legitimate refugees have a legal right come to Ireland and also that Ireland benefits from migration in many ways. “I’m somebody who’s in favour of migration. I think it’s a good thing,” he said. “It strengthens our economy. We wouldn’t run half our public services without migrants and [it] enriches our culture too.”
He wouldn’t want, he said, his comments to be perceived as a hardening of the Government’s tone on immigration.
But there’s little doubt that’s what it is. Varadkar is experienced and able enough as a political communicator to know that. You’ll hear the same from Minister for Justice Simon Harris, Varadkar’s equal in the political communication stakes. The Government has always been careful to acknowledge the rights of asylum seekers and the benefits of immigration. It hasn’t always talked about the threat of people traffickers and the need to send failed asylum seekers home. That’s the bit that has changed.
At the European Council this week, it is clear the prevailing wind is blowing in the same direction – and blowing a lot harder in some places. All the talk – echoed in the agreed conclusions of the summit – was about border fences, patrols, enforcement, repatriation. EU leaders say they are reflecting the wishes of their voters, but it all sounds a lot like Fortress Europe.