Wars loom large over EU summit as Simon Harris makes Brussels debut as Taoiseach

Gaza, Iran, Israel and Ukraine clear focus of European agenda along with reform of capital markets.

Like young Lochinvar come out of the West, Simon Harris breezed into Brussels for his first EU summit as Taoiseach on Wednesday, the youngest member of Europe’s most exclusive club.

Harris was one of three newbies at the summit; it was also the debut of the Portuguese prime minister, Luis Montenegro, and Bulgaria’s Dimitar Glavchev. At Europe’s top table, the dinner guests change regularly – the democratic facility to sack their leaders is one that the voters of Europe are fond of exercising. All the leaders know that, someday, their number will be up; nobody gets too comfortable. Their acquaintance is inevitably temporary.

But there were welcomes, all the same, from around the room. Commission president Ursula von der Leyen had – pictures from inside the council chamber showed – a warm continental kiss for Harris (though only a frosty-looking handshake from von der Leyenfor her compatriot, the German chancellor Olaf Scholz), as the Taoiseach buzzed around the room amid handshakes, nods and smiles.

Asked by a reporter about his relative lack of experience at this level, Harris was having none of it: “Well I’ve been Taoiseach for just over a week, and it’s my second time in Brussels, I’ve had meetings with six European prime ministers, and I’ve met the three presidents of the European institutions. I’ve been a minister or minister of state for 10 years, I’ve sat around the Cabinet table for eight years, so I think I do bring a fair depth of governmental experience to this role. But of course, attending your first European Council meeting is a first – it has to be a first for everybody at some point.”


Someone’s got their big boy pants on.

Earlier, the leaders were received by the king of the Belgians at his palace, with Harris’s briefing notes (presumably) making clear that Phillipe is king of the Belgians, rather than king of Belgium.

When the world was a simpler place, there were only a couple of summits a year. But as the scope and size of the EU has grown, so the number of summits has proliferated. Now there are four a year scheduled, one each in March, June, October and December, but in reality there can be twice as many, as events in an increasingly uncertain and threatening world demand discussion, decisions and co-ordination among the 27 leaders. We are not yet at the end of the fourth month of the year and this was the third summit. Good news for the hoteliers of Brussels and for cops looking for overtime. Bad for the leaders’ carbon footprints.

Wars dominated the Wednesday night discussion. War in Gaza, possible war between Israel and Iran, war in Ukraine. Most of the time was spent talking about Ukraine – which dominates the thoughts of the central and eastern European countries in a way that is both understandable and yet entirely unappreciated in Ireland.

There is a growing fear of a Ukrainian defeat, and a realisation that this would prompt another wave of refugees heading west in the EU. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy addressed the leaders via video-link, telling them what he needed: “Weapons for our soldiers. Shells for artillery. Vehicles. Drones. Everything that helps to hold the frontline.”

On Gaza, Harris proclaimed himself pleased that the EU had unambiguously called for an “immediate ceasefire”, a strengthening of its position since last month. Though quite what they think this will achieve is not clear.

On Thursday, attention moved to internal EU matters, and the perennial question of reforming the EU’s capital markets. The oversimplified version is about making the EU’s trillions of euro of savings work to create investment, jobs and growth. But Ireland and other countries are nervous about a French smash and grab on their financial services sectors, and there is also concern in Dublin about tax harmonisation elements to the plans. And so Harris in his first summit followed the path of several of his predecessors: defending the economic advantages of Europe’s most pro-EU country against EU plans which might threaten them.

The next summit is in June – actually, there are two that month – when the EU’s leaders will turn to the great Brussels parlour game of who gets the EU’s top jobs for the next five years. Harris will not be in the reckoning. He has the job he wanted.