Stephen Rae’s European Diary
AUTUMN has hit Strasbourg a lot sooner than even Dublin. Wednesday morning skies are heavy with grey threat and brown hewn leaves scurry in the wind on empty streets.
It doesn’t bode well for Jean-Claude Juncker’s much anticipated State of the Union address at 9am.
A stroll through the Parc de l’Orangerie towards the European Council buildings reveals the place deserted. It’s hard to tell every hotel for miles around has been booked up for weeks and prices have been hiked to Galway Races levels for the event.
******* It’s a different story in the new multi-million euro European Parliament building which is abuzz in a type of Euro civil service style.
Juncker’s speech has gone down a treat. His talk of the “wind being back in our sails” and a strong reproach to Britain that it will “regret” Brexit went down well in the labyrinthine corridors.
It drew the usual UKIP onslaught, but it has led to a feeling that the days of adversity may be behind us and the European Project has a future after all. Some accomplishment for the much maligned Mr Juncker.
******* Ireland South MEP Sean Kelly feels the State of the Union was a turning point for the European Commission President.
In the Members’ Bar over a coffee he says: “It was his best State of the Union address to parliament and the responses it got — a standing ovation from the majority — reflected that.
“I think that both he and Europe in general have taken the lessons of Brexit and Trump on board and have come down from their high horses and are now walking with the people.”
However the Fine Gael parliamentarian and former GAA president isn’t supportive of the speech in its entirety. “While we would agree with much of what he said in relation to creating a better Europe, we have to be very careful about developing a European army and qualified majorities for taxation.
“That will have to be discussed at European Council level and it will require unanimity at that level first before it can come into place and I am sure Ireland and other countries will assess the proposals very carefully before committing to any change in taxation. Ireland in particular will have to be very careful of it,” he chides.
As to the future of the Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice, Kelly smiles. I hear the Kerry fans are... well, not happy with the poor performance against Mayo. “I reckon he’ll get at least another year,” he confides.
******* The Members’ Bar in this glass contemporary building is disconcerting. Black walls and a lime-green carpet may suggest intimacy, but it is actually quite gloomy. The glass smoking cages at the end of the room look like holding cells. Maybe that’s a deliberate design feature.
Nigel Farage spends practically the whole morning darting in and out of the smoking cage. He is ignored by all and sundry and cuts a strangely lonely figure.
******* If we are looking for someone to lead our Brexit strategy, perhaps Leo could look no further than Mr Kelly.
Our coffee chat is interrupted by none other Michel Barnier. The EU Brexit negotiator makes a bee-line for the Kerryman. They chat convivially for a few minutes and there’s no doubt both are on very friendly terms.
“Michel is a great guy, possibly the next Commission president,” Sean contemplates as he prepares to head off to the party’s powwow in Clonmel, in the heart of his Euro constituency.
******* Another one seemingly popular is the imposing figure of none other than Phil Hogan. Complete with his Euro-high-flier specs, Commissioner Hogan is on first-name terms with all the parliamentarians as he breezes through the corridors. “That’s the leader of the German agri-group,” he points out.”
“Guten tag,” he greets the Bavarian. “Oh Commissar Hogan,” she says, “I’ve been looking for you.”
“I know,” he says. “We will have to meet on CAP after the elections [the German general election],” he tells her.
“Let’s do that as soon as they’re over,” she darts.
“Here’s the French leader, from the South of France,” says Phil.
“No the Central [of France],” says the MEP.
“It’s the South,” commands Phil to the smiling MEP.
Further down the mazelike lobbies, the president of the European Parliament is introduced as “Tony” — none other than the formidable Italian, Antonio Tajani.
******* Now it’s down to business, the scheduled face-to-face with man-of-the-moment Mr Juncker. It’s now 2pm and Mr Juncker has done a heavy round of television interviews. His amiable spokesman Margaritis Schinas, a Greek, shows me into the EU President’s surprisingly old fashioned office in the “Winston Churchill Building”.
I’m told Mr Juncker is in good form and wants the interview conducted informally — i.e. no tie.
That’s fine with me, I explain to Mr Schinas.
******* The EU president orders some espressos and inquires how are things in Ireland. Before I have a chance to speak about the upturn, the housing crisis, Mayo’s chances against Dublin and Kerry’s poor fortune this year, he goes into full flow on his respect for the Irish.
It’s followed by a performance review of his Agriculture Minister. “Phil [Hogan] is an excellent commissioner,” says Jean-Claude.
“He has a good reputation inside the college [and] outside the Commission, so Ireland was right to propose him as an Irish commissioner. I like him very, very much. [When] I’m giving him the floor in the Commission, I’m always saying: ‘First Farmer you have the floor.’ He’s a good friend,” the president confides.
Well, that’s a handy endorsement for the ‘First Farmer’ coming into Ploughing Week.
******* I am anxious to quiz Mr Juncker on his tax proposals which, word has it, are being pressed by France and Germany — and which would spell disaster for Ireland’s corporate tax regime.
Many say the President was playing to the Franco-German axis with his speech references and is not that vehement about introducing the reform. His body language seems to endorse this view, as he goes into a narrative which says this won’t happen unless Ireland and others agree — and we all know that Ireland and others won’t agree.
“When it comes to taxation, because that was your question, I was proposing if the European Council did so, by unanimous decision, to change the voting rules in the European Union when it comes taxation.
“But if you have unanimity or qualified majority voting, this is not .... this does not mean that these things could be done without debate.”
Very much toned down from the State of the Union address. I try a cheeky probe. “Do you think the British will ever get their act together?” Jean-Claude is not biting. “I’m not in charge of Britain or London. I never was, by the way,” he dismisses.
******* Juncker gets his fair share of bad press, particularly in the UK. But there is a warmth to him that you don’t get with many politicians, especially at this level.
Speaking about the influx of refugees to Europe he displays his antipathy for the likes of Marine Le Pen and the Dutch right-wing. They are still a threat, he says despite not taking office.
Remember, Madame Le Pen got 13m votes and the Dutch right-wing are the second biggest party, he warns.
He says his views of migrants and their benefits to society were formed as a youngster. His father was a steel worker in Luxembourg and his co-workers were Italian migrants. Their children became his friends.
******* Back in the lobbies, many of the Europeans are surprised at a widespread perception the Irish are not making the best of Brexit. One Italian journalist points to how Luxembourg and Frankfurt are winning most of the banks.
“Why are you Irish not getting the banks. This is amazing. Did you see the Financial Times this morning? Emmanuel Macron has appointed one of his top ministers and his friend to win the banks from London to Paris,” he points out.
A Spanish colleague nods. “They are saying your central bank is not doing enough to get the banks. Why is this?” she asks me.
Certainly there is a latent view that Leo and the Central Bank Governor need to do more to lure Euro institutions to the regions and banks to Dublin.
Perhaps Leo will do a Macron by appointing a Brexit Minister and landing some big fish out of London. He’d better act fast though, there are only months left before the big decisions are made. He won’t be forgiven if we don’t get a Brexit bonus from relocations. As to Central Bank chief Mr Lane, I just don’t know.
******* As time comes to pack up for the day, I bump into Brian Hayes who is coming out of an RTE interview. He has adapted well to life in Europe and ponders there will be big things from the new Taoiseach.
I’m glad of his advice on getting to the airport in Paris. It’s no wonder everyone complains about getting to Strasbourg. There is no direct flight from Dublin. It was a flight into Frankfurt and then a two-hour car journey to the French town on the border on Tuesday night. Now follows two trains to Charles de Gaulle and then the late-night Aer Lingus shuttle home.
As I board the aircraft, I’m greeted by steward Michael who was on the Frankfurt flight last night.
When I mention this, he laughs and asks: “Was I in Germany last night?”
I’m glad I said “hello.” Before take off Michael plucks me from the back of the plane and finds a nice aisle/exit seat further up the plane. Where else would you get it?