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Fine Gael in awkward position as European politics shifts right

Party increasingly seen as unreliable by its European People’s Party political group as it rebels on votes


When all five Fine Gael MEPs voted in favour of the Nature Restoration Law in the European Parliament this week, for fellow members of their political group it was yet another betrayal.

The European People’s Party (EPP) president Manfred Weber of Germany had personally led a campaign to kill the landmark biodiversity Bill. He teamed up with the hard right in parliament to try to sink it, not wanting the EPP to seem “too green” as angry farmer protests shut down city streets and anti-green far-right movements threaten to steal votes in the coming June elections.

It’s another illustration of awkward relations between Fine Gael and their own political group that have deteriorated over the parliament’s five-year term and may only worsen in the next term.

Last summer, the five Fine Gael votes to save the same Bill were almost solely responsible for swinging a knife-edge vote.


That hasn’t been forgotten. It led to Fine Gael being seen as unreliable – the first to rebel in a political force that seeks to exert its might through strength in numbers.

Such tensions played a role in killing off Ireland’s hopes of winning the headquarters of the EU’s new anti-money laundering agency for Dublin last week, according to those close to the internal negotiations.

Dublin’s hopes had been dealt a fatal blow in the days before the vote when the EPP declined to include it on its preferred shortlist of four cities.

The centre-left in parliament also overlooked Dublin, but this was unsurprising. It has no Irish members and its MEP in charge of following the file had grilled Ministers Michael McGrath and Jennifer Carroll MacNeill about Ireland’s reputation as a “tax haven” during their presentation to parliament on Dublin’s merits.

The EPP on the other hand has five Irish MEPs, the largest showing of any Irish party. Yet they found few allies in trying to get Dublin on the shortlist.

The Spanish delegation, the Popular Party, had particularly little time for the idea, sources say. Just the week before, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had teamed up with none other than their bitter enemy, centre-left Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez, to jointly call on the EU to review its trade agreement with Israel.

The Popular Party and EPP leadership had just spent months trying to unseat Sánchez in an election in which nature restoration was a divisive issue. Now here was Sánchez co-signing with one of their own a letter that challenged none other than Ursula von der Leyen – the president of the European Commission and one of the EPP’s most senior figures – at a sensitive time as she seeks a second mandate.

It also sat ill with the strong strain of pro-Israel sentiment among the Spanish right.

It reveals Fine Gael’s awkward position as it tries to reconcile a more progressive Irish electorate with the rightward swing of its European fellow parties.

While over the past decade Ireland has undergone a socially liberal transition, on the Continent EPP party members are increasingly echoing the populist or radical-right forces with which they compete for votes.

On migration, Ireland’s geographic position meant hardline views took longer to enter politics than in the EU’s frontline states. On the environment, Ireland lacks the major heavy industry for which many continental EPP parties advocate.

In France or Italy, Fine Gael would be a left-wing party, one EPP insider recently remarked.

It means that Fine Gael constantly risks triggering a domestic backlash if it votes with its own party group.

The MEPs are still smarting from the public hammering they received at home for voting with the EPP against a resolution to increase search-and-rescue operations for refugees in the Mediterranean in 2019.

Some observers have even questioned whether Fine Gael would be more comfortable in Fianna Fáil’s centrist grouping, Renew.

It’s unlikely that Fine Gael would want to relinquish the EPP’s access and might. But things are only going to get more awkward from here.

Von der Leyen, now the EPP’s official candidate for a second term, has become a toxic figure in Ireland due to her stance on Israel, and Fine Gael’s campaign rivals are already making the most of that.

The party is set for a rough election, and insiders believe its seats in parliament may be reduced to as few as two.

Those MEPs will face an ever more difficult balancing act if, as expected, the parliament shifts rightward in the elections and the EPP continues on its path of deal-making with the hard right.