23rd May 2019

Ireland speculates on Ahern becoming EU president

In the small and febrile world of Irish politics, speculation is rife about whether long-serving prime minister Bertie Ahern has set his sights on bigger political things – namely becoming the first president of the European Council.

Mr Ahern, a skilful and wily politician who has been Taoiseach in Ireland since 1997, has already made it clear he will not contest the next elections set for 2011.

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But either becoming a backbencher for his centre-right Fianna Fail party or stepping out of politics altogether is something political pundits in Dublin find hard to imagine.

Europe, however, would be a respectable step upwards.

The job of president of the European Council does not actually officially exist yet. It is part of the new EU treaty that member states are currently drawing up.

If the timeline goes as planned – something also dependent on Ireland's referendum on the new treaty - the council job should be in place by mid-2009 after the European and local government elections.

The Irish Independent notes that this would be "an ideal time for a new Fianna Fail leader to prepare for a general election in 2011."

It also quotes a senior party source as saying the Mr Ahern is aware of the new job and that it could be one option he chooses after he steps down.

This is not the first time Mr Ahern has been mooted for the European stage. He was offered the job of European Commission president on the back of his success in the getting the original EU constitution agreed by all member states in 2003 during the Irish EU presidency - the constitution was later rejected by French and Dutch voters in referendums.

But he turned it down and it was eventually taken by current president Jose Manuel Barroso, a former prime minister of Portugal.

At the time it was said he too attached to local politics – with Brussels seen as far removed from the cut and thrust of the national political stage.

The council president job description is not exact – one of the main objectives of the job is to give the EU some consistency and political coherence since under the current system, the EU's leading personalities change every six month.

The first person in the job – which can be held for a maximum of five years - could make as much or as little of the office as they liked. Election is by other EU leaders on the basis of qualified majority.

Mr Ahern is seen as a very clever politician, not least for brokering the current coalition of Fianna Fail and greens after general elections in May. He was once memorably described by Charles Haughey, a former Taoiseach and mentor as "the best, the most skilful, the most devious and the most cunning."

He is also credited with Ireland's booming economy and played a major role in the peace talks in Northern Ireland. However, he is decidedly monolingual which could be a drawback in polyglot Brussels.

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