Simon Harris to make his debut at European Council summit

The meeting will be the Taoiseach’s chance to make a favourable first impression and build relationships with other EU leaders

New Taoiseach Simon Harris will travel to Brussels on Wednesday afternoon for his first meeting of the European Council, the EU’s highest decision-making body.

The Council comprises all the heads of EU member state governments and its decisions set the direction and substance of the EU’s policy, both internally and externally. And where its members cannot agree – as has been repeatedly the case on the Middle East in the past six months – that too is immediately visible.

The group is convened by the President of European Council, currently the former Belgian prime minister Charles Michel. But really, the role is more that of a chairman than an executive role; while the leaders of the big member states and traditional “engines” of the EU in France and Germany play outsize roles on the body, so alliances of the smaller states can also wield significant influence.

Harris will be familiar with meetings of the Council of Ministers – where all the health ministers, or all the transport ministers, or whatever, all gather to discuss matters of common interest and agree common measures where the EU treaties provide for it. But the European Council is a different beast.


For one thing, its remit runs across the full gamut of governments’ activities. Just as Harris is now responsible for the Irish Government as a whole, so the European Council must decide policy in all those areas where the EU treaties give the bloc a role.

But the European Council also runs differently to the Council of Ministers, where ministers are accompanied by senior officials and conclusions are typically agreed in advance. At the European Council, only the leaders are permitted in the room. Discussions can sometimes continue late into the night over dinner and sometimes well beyond that as they wrangle over the wording of conclusions.

Essentially, they are trying to agree a common position that everyone can sign up to; sometimes that isn’t possible, and in those cases the failure is very evident.

Every EU leader will have received a briefing on Ireland’s new leader from their embassies in Dublin, but this will be Harris’s chance to make a favourable first impression, and building relationships with other EU leaders will be an important part of his work in the coming days. He has, of course, met the Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez in Dublin last week, and a number of other PMs in Warsaw last week. But this is his debut on the big stage, and the others will be forming judgments about him from the get-go.

The two-day summit will be overshadowed by events in the Middle East and in particular by the dangers of an escalation of hostilities between Iran and Israel. The situation in Gaza will also be discussed, but EU states remain starkly divided on the issue, with leaders at the last summit only able to agree on a call for “an immediate humanitarian pause leading to a sustainable ceasefire in Gaza” and “the unconditional release of all hostages and the provision of humanitarian assistance”.

There is a clear division between the more pro-Israel states (Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and others) and the more pro-Palestinian lobby, which includes Ireland and Spain. Harris is likely to seek support for the initiative to recognise the State of Palestine, currently being discussed by several EU states, including Ireland.

The leaders will also discuss the war in Ukraine, relations with Turkey, and the future of the EU single market, on which a new report has been drafted by Enrico Letta, the former Italian prime minister and president of the Jacques Delors Institute. The summit concludes on Thursday evening.