Stephen Rae’s Euro­pean Diary

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Today In Your Sunday Independent - STEPHEN RAE

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?

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