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30th Jan 2023

Irish leader feeling the heat in EU liberal group

Just as he thought his European worries were over following the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen is starting to feel less comfortable in the European Liberal party.

Having recently switched his Fianna Fail party from an anti-federalist and now defunct grouping within the European Parliament to the Liberal family, Mr Cowen is now finding it hard to toe the new party line, which he can no longer control.

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  • Brian Cowen - just when he thought his troubles were over (Photo: Conor McCabe/Jason Clarke)

Emerging from a one hour meeting with his new Liberal colleagues ahead of Thursday's (29 October) summit of EU leaders in Brussels, Mr Cowen looked uneasy sitting on the top table, as he attempted to bat away awkward questions over his MEPs' voting behaviour.

Three Fianna Fail MEPs recently abstained in a European parliament vote on press freedom in Italy. Their abstention meant that the Liberal-origin resolution was tied with 338 votes in favour and 338 votes against, infuriating Liberal group leader, Guy Verhofstadt.

Mr Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, and his group received no prior warning from Dublin that the three MEPs had been told to abstain.

"We have agreed to inform each other of our positions earlier," said an uncomfortable looking Mr Cowen on Thursday as he sat beside the Liberal leader.

The Fianna Fail trio have in their short stint in the group also caused friction by trying to scupper a previous Liberal initiative on gay rights.

Split allegiances

The other issue causing friction between him and his new liberal chums is the question of Europe's top jobs, with the Liberals adamant that one of the top four EU jobs should go to them.

"We were decisive on the election of the president of the European commission so we have a deal. Live up to the deal," said Belgian liberal MEP Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck, on a prior agreement between her group and the centre-right EPP faction.

But Mr Cowen finds his allegiances torn between two candidates for European council president, and neither is a Liberal.

"I've certainly the highest regard for Tony Blair and obviously we await and see if, in fact, he's a candidate, but you can take it that we'd be very supportive," Mr Cowen said earlier this month in support of the British centre-left former-prime minister.

Mr Blair is credited with pushing the peace process along in Northern Ireland and was in power during the signing of the Belfast peace agreement in 1998.

The recent decision by former Irish prime minister and current EU ambassador to the US, John Bruton, to throw his hat into the ring is also complicating the matter. Mr Bruton is from Ireland's conservative Fine Gael party, which sits with the EPP in the European Parliament.

Mr Cowen winced at the onslaught of questions from journalists over who he would support.

"I would of course respect the Liberal party position," he said turning to Mr Verhofstadt, but pointedly avoided to rule out his support for the other two candidates.

Later, he told journalists he was happy that the current EU ambassador to the US had put himself forward, but added that it remained to be seen how much support there would be.

Extraordinary summit mooted

The European parliament is due to discuss the profile of the European Council president on 11 November, with speculation there could be a specially convened summit of EU leaders the next day to discuss candidates for the job.

The Swedish presidency has insisted that discussion on candidate names will not be on the agenda at this week's summit, which will focus instead on the job description. Once full ratification is achieved, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt will embark on a round of bilateral discussions to seek agreement on a name.

Liberal EU leaders favour a more chairman-like role, while others such as the UK say they want someone with sufficient presence on the world stage to engage with the likes of China and the US.

"That's the way we interpret 'driving forward the agenda of the European Council'," said one senior UK diplomat this week, referring to wording in the Lisbon Treaty.

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