At EU summits, leaders feel free to liaise and build alliances

Leo Varadkar, a political nerd before he became a politician, is in his element

“They’re in there on their own,” laughs one diplomat. “It terrifies the officials.”

Talk to anyone who has been leader of a country, or read their memoirs, and the lack of control over their own day is evident. Our leaders are managed, and tightly. It takes over your life, Enda Kenny once said.

Presidents and prime ministers are surrounded by aides, civil servants, spin doctors, officials, security men and bag carriers almost every waking minute of the day. They shuffle from meeting to meeting, rapidly digesting carefully prepared briefs on the way. Their schedule is planned and managed weeks, months in advance. There is always someone on their shoulder.

Every moment of a European summit is planned. Who arrives when and where: 28 leaders and their entourages and security is a lot of choreography. The managers know the exact time it takes each of the 28 motorcades to travel from the airport to the hotel, from the hotel to summit venue (“6½ minutes,” says one official).


Each arrival must be managed like airliners coming in to land. You couldn’t have a traffic jam of motorcades; security would go nuts.

Nobody follows

But when the leaders go into the council room, that’s it. Unlike every other meeting, nobody follows. The leaders speak among themselves, and agree (or not) conclusions, policies, actions. Hence the officials’ polite discomfiture – the politicians get to make decisions.

This is the aspect of European summitry that the Taoiseach seems to relish the most. Leo Varadkar has spoken publicly and privately about the thrill of doing business with his fellow European heads of government. The agenda in Brussels this week was a busy, but not atypical one: fires in Portugal, storms in Ireland; Iran; North Korea; migration from Africa; taxing tech companies; European security and defence, the future of Europe, Brexit.

On a number of these subjects, Varadkar made interventions in the discussions. This has not been the practice of his predecessors; the Irish approach has not been to get involved in affairs that did not directly concern us. Varadkar, according to people familiar with the discussions, is tearing up that script.

He eschews the detailed speaking notes that his predecessor liked to have in front of him. A briefing is prepared in advance on Ireland’s position which includes possible issues arising. But no speaking notes.

Some leaders regard the summits as a painful chore, a distraction from the real business of politics at home. But Leo Varadkar, a political nerd before he became a politician, is in his element.

Video message

The summit is nowadays more than just one meeting. After leaving Baldonnel on Thursday morning at about 9.30am – pausing to record the now obligatory video message – and landing in Brussels, Varadkar headed for a meeting of the EPP, the European People’s Party, to which Fine Gael is affiliated.

The EPP meeting allows for networking and alliance-building, as well as (sometimes) agreeing approaches to issue that the council will discuss later. Crucially, it provides facetime with Germany's leader and Europe's most powerful politician, Angela Merkel. She may be diminished at home after a stuttering election, but Merkel remains Europe's big beast.

After the EPP, Varadkar attended a meeting of the Nordic-Baltic group, a semi-formal group of prime ministers of the EU's northernmost countries. This is a new insertion in the calendar. Ireland is not a member, but Varadkar was invited to attend, along with Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte.

Though it is only his second summit, Ireland's leader is no longer the new kid on the block

With the UK leaving, Ireland is desperate for new allies, and Irish diplomats say the northern countries are natural allies on many issues. Varadkar seems to have struck up something of a rapport with Rutte; he will visit Dublin next year. Varadkar’s aides are delighted with their new friends and the Taoiseach stressed how much the countries had in common with Ireland: small countries with open economies , who are – though he didn’t say it – nervous about the promised resuscitation of the Franco-German motor.

Glass behemoth

The summit – or meeting of the European Council, to give it its proper title – takes place in the Justus Lipsius building, a concrete and glass behemoth directly across from the Berlaymont Building, headquarters of the European Commission.

The council is the voice of the politicians, the elected heads of government; the Commission is the bureaucrats, the civil service which has also been the engine of European integration. The institutions are allies, and rivals. The European Parliament, the third of the great institutions, is the poor, weaker relation.

Though it is only his second summit, Ireland's leader is no longer the new kid on the block. The Austrian leader Sebastien Kurz debuted in Brussels this week. And there's Macron, of course. Only his second outing too. There is much talk of the new generation of leaders; though looking at the group photographs, you'd hardly say that youth is the most obvious feature.

Varadkar clashed with Macron in the council discussion over a potential digital tax, a proposal yet to be formulated by the Commission, but one much desired by the French. The threat to Ireland’s honey pot of corporation tax paid by US tech multinationals makes this one of the most important issues for Ireland on the European stage.

We need to have a European Google, Macron told him.

We won’t get one by taxing it, Varadkar responded. Sources briefed on the exchange played down the clash as a healthy exchange of views. But they also noted with some satisfaction that Merkel did not back Macron.

Word of progress

Once the leaders go into the council meeting – preceded by a working lunch – officials wait for word of progress inside the room. Of course, draft conclusions have been worked on by civil servants and circulated in advance, with the final draft agreed the night before the meeting. But they are still only drafts; it is open to the leaders to change them. Most countries that wish to flag an issue and seek a change do so at the general affairs council which precedes the council on Tuesday, attended by European Affairs ministers.

So last Tuesday, Helen McEntee sought a change in the language about a potential digital tax. Her intervention reflected Ireland’s views that the OECD process should be followed, rather than the EU trying to impose a measure unilaterally.

This is a delaying tactic, of course. Everyone knows it. Saying we favour the OECD process is the same as saying we want nothing to happen. Why would we? So we can give away our tax revenues? Nonetheless, Varadkar got the change he wanted. But that battle will have to fought many times again. At the post-summit press conference, Varadkar noted sharply that forthcoming proposals from the Commission would be “for discussion, not agreement”.

Some leaders text out updates to their teams. Periodically, an official from the staff of Donald Tusk, the full-time president of the council who runs the meetings, emerges from the room to brief one official from each country - known as the antici group - on the progress of discussions. Each country's antici member then briefs his or her own colleagues. Messages can of course be relayed back into the room if necessary.

In the early evening, the meeting breaks up and the leaders return to their national delegations, before returning later for a working dinner which usually runs late. It was well past midnight when they emerged on Thursday night. The leaders give an account of the discussion, and what, if anything they contributed, and what was agreed.

Irish gossip in Brussels already suggests a considerable contrast between the briefing provided by Enda Kenny and those from his successor. “Enda used to come out and joke he had told Angela Merkel he had the FCA ready to go into the Ukraine,” says one Brussels insider. “I don’t think Leo does that.”

The meeting resumes the following morning, over a working breakfast, and usually concludes around lunchtime. On Friday, Brexit was the main item on the agenda. The discussions did not involve Theresa May, who had departed.

Darkening storm cloud

Brexit hangs over every EU meeting like darkening stormcloud. There were some rays of sunshine in recent days, and there is an expectation that the talks can make a breakthrough in the coming weeks. That would enable the Brexit negotiations to move the second phase, the future relationship which includes trade and customs, and which will directly affect the future border arrangements in Ireland.

On Friday, with Theresa May having departed, the remaining 27 leaders began to discuss what that second phase might look like. They are preparing to move, even as patience with the British grows ever thinner. There is some relief in Irish circles at the emerging path to a breakthrough, but equally a realisation that the two sides remain divided, and time is getting short.

The question of May’s shaky grip on power in London is one everyone’s lips in Brussels, but it’s one nobody has a ready answer to. A breakdown of the talks remains on balance unlikely, but not impossible. No matter how thrilling Varadkar finds it all, the EU is facing some of its most difficult days ahead.