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No regrets as Varadkar limbers up for the last dance in Brussels

Suddenly, the Taoiseach seems tired of it all. Tired of Brussels, even

Leo Varadkar bounced out of the Sofitel hotel in Brussels on Thursday morning, en route to the giant concrete and steel palaces that house the institutions of the European Union. A gaggle of reporters were gathered outside on the off-chance of a word with passing EU bigwigs. Are you looking for a new job in Europe? “No, definitely not,” Varadkar replied with a chuckle, “but thanks!”

A new job seems to be the last thing on his mind. A while later, he strode down the red carpet of the Europa building that houses the regular summits of EU leaders, flanked by the flags of the 27 member states. The massed ranks of reporters, microphones and cameras awaited him, not quite for the last time (it’s a two-day summit), but counting down, all the same.

“So, looking forward to the European Council meeting today and tomorrow...” Varadkar began. Predictably, nearly all the questions were about his departure.

What did he think of the emerging trend for Simon Harris at home? He wouldn’t be endorsing any candidate. Would a contest be good for the party? It could be beneficial, he conceded. But not essential. (Just as well.)


Before long, he was answering the question that lots of people – politicians, officials, journalists – are asking in Brussels and, also, at home: why did he really go? And why now?

The reasons, he insisted, were as he had already stated. It was just time for a change. “There’s no event, there’s no one thing. I appreciate the need for journalism to have ‘a thing’ or a moment but in real life it’s often not like that,” he said.

It was to be a recurring theme. Just because the journalists say something is so, doesn’t mean it is. It is not an unusual theme among politicians who are on the way out. They all go through a stage of frustration with the media. Or maybe they just don’t care to hide it any more.

And suddenly, Varadkar seems tired of it all. Tired of Brussels, even. There was a time when he would talk privately with almost boyish enthusiasm about the unique arrangements of a meeting of the European Council, the group of heads of governments that is the EU’s most important decision-making body. At the meetings of the Council of Ministers – where all the transport or health or whatever ministers meet – which he attended while a minister, officials sit behind the ministers passing notes and offering advice during the discussion between the principals. At the council, there’s no officials – just the leaders. They go into the room and – sometimes hours later – emerge having agreed a text, or not. It’s raw, high politics, up close and personal. Varadkar loved it.

Not any more, it seems.

“I’m here in Brussels today,” he said. “I’ve been coming to Brussels for nearly 14 years now without a break, representing the country as a minister and then as Taoiseach and tánaiste. There comes a time when you need to move on and you need to make space for new people and new ideas and new energy and that’s what I want to do.

“What I’m saying is it’s time for change. Time for somebody new. I think it will be good for the party, more importantly it will be good for the Government, good for the country. I’ve had the privilege for over 13 years to represent Ireland around the world, to come to Brussels to attend meetings like this.

“But it can’t be forever, and I don’t want it to be forever. You know I left Leinster House last night at nearly 10pm. I went home, had a takeaway, had a chat with my partner and got up at 8am, or no, before 8am, at 6.45 to get on a plane at 8 o’clock – you know, you don’t need to do that forever.”

This inhuman schedule found mixed sympathy among the reporters present, many of whom had also gotten home after 10pm and – not having recourse to a private jet – had to get up even earlier than 6.45am to get a flight to Brussels. Some of them didn’t even get a takeaway last night, would you believe. But look it, it’s not about them.

Did he feel relief?

“I don’t know, it hasn’t sunk in yet. Like I say, I left Government Buildings last night half-nine, ten o’clock, went home, quick takeaway, had a chat with my partner, read my brief for this morning, was on a flight at 8am – it hasn’t sunk in yet. But it will sink in.”

This must have been one terrible takeaway. In fairness, that can happen. They’re hit and miss at the best of times.

He was self-reflective, as always. The decision he had to make, he said, was to judge whether his party had a better chance of prospering, and perhaps winning an unprecedented fourth term in government, with a different leader. After some consideration, that’s the conclusion he reached.

On Thursday in Brussels, even as he limbered up for the last dance with the European leaders among whom he has always felt at home, that conclusion looked anything like reluctant.