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Simon Harris speaking to the international media at the Europa Building. Alexandros Michailidis
New kid on the block

Harris bats away talk of 'inexperience' on his big EU debut as Ukraine and Palestine dominate

Harris used his time to lobby other EU countries to back Palestinian state recognition.

SIMON HARRIS SEEMED prepared for questions about his experience of European affairs at his first EU Council meeting in Brussels this week. 

The special meeting, where Ukraine dominated the conversation, was Harris’ first time on the European stage as Taoiseach. 

Since taking on the job, there has been much written about the 37 year old and what he will bring to the role. 

One thing that is often commented on is Harris’ lack of experience when it comes to European matters.

When The Journal posed the question to him, Harris was bristly in his response, and listed the many meetings he has had in the last seven or so days as well as all of the jobs he has had over the years. 

“I’ve been Taoiseach for just over a week. This is my second time in Brussels. I’ve had meetings with six European prime ministers, I have met the three presidents of the European institutions.

“I have been a Minister and Minister of State for 10 years. I sat around the Cabinet table for eight years. So, I think I do bring a fair depth of governmental experiences to this role,” he said. 

“But of course, attending your first European Council meeting is a first, and has to be a first for everybody at some point upon entering the premiership of a European country,” added Harris. 

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When Micheál Martin was asked last week if there will be a degree of “hand-holding” needed for Harris when it comes to Europe, the Tánaiste defended Harris’ knowledge on European affairs and north-south relations.

“Simon Harris has been in government for a considerable amount of time as well and would be well aware of all of the issues,” he said in Co Armagh.

Asked if he believes attention would drift from the power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland under Harris’ premiership, Martin said: “I don’t believe the eye would be taken off the ball.”

Speaking on RTE’s This Week programme when he became Taoiseach, he said he plans to hire advisers on economics, Europe, and Northern Ireland in the coming weeks.

So how did he fare? 

Harris used his time wisely, quietly attempting to convince other EU countries about the merits of Palestinian state recognition.

He wouldn’t reveal what countries he had had the chats with, particularly around the issue of recognising the state of Palestine, stating that it was really a matter for them to reveal where they might stand on the issue.

However, he said that he believes from the conversations he has had that more will join with Spain and Ireland when the states move to recognise the state of Palestine

If that is the case, then Harris will have shown that he has what it takes to work soft diplomacy and bring people around to Ireland’s viewpoint. 

But when will it happen?

Right now it is about “picking the right moment” to press the button. While there were concerns that the escalation between Iran and Israel might throw the timeline off track, sources state that the timeline has not been altered. 

It is hoped that the tensions between Iran and Israel will dissipate, and a number of countries can move in tandem to recognise Palestine this summer.

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During a discussion on the Middle East, he called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and the release of hostages, telling EU leaders that it was not enough to just call for an increase in humanitarian aid but that there also needs to be unhindered access throughout Gaza and that Israel must facilitate this as required by the ICJ.

Harris called for a two-state solution and he urged the EU to use all levers at its disposal to help bring this about.

In terms of Iran, he condemned the large-scale attacks by Iran on Israel and described them as a flagrant threat to international peace and security. He also supported the call for increased sanctions on Iran. 

Ukraine dominates EU Council

While Palestine and the Middle East may be of paramount concern to many Irish people back home, Ukraine has been the dominant conversation at the EU meeting.

A focus on air defence and fears around the risk of losing the front line was to the fore. 

EU member states discussed defence preparedness and resource-sharing in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Underlined was the need to urgently provide air defence to Ukraine and to speed up and intensify the delivery of military assistance, including artillery ammunition and missiles.

EU leaders also welcomed progress on the proposals to direct extraordinary revenues from Russia’s frozen assets to benefit Ukraine, and called for their swift adoption.

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Harris, as Taoiseach, must walk a delicate line in terms of the assistance the Ireland can provide to Ukraine, which can not be linked to weapons, given our position of being militarily neutral.

An Irish Times/Ipsos opinion poll last year found that 61% of voters said they favoured the current model of military neutrality, while just more than a quarter said they would like to see it change.

Harris welcomed the setting aside of revenue generated from immobilised assets and said there was a need for the EU to progress talks with Ukraine on joining the bloc. 

The Taoiseach also spoke about the importance of council coordination and preparation in advance of a peace conference in Switzerland this summer.

The Irish government has been very keen to point out that the country wants to contribute in every way that we can, for fear of being accused of not pulling its weight when it comes to support for Ukraine.

Ireland has highlighted that it cannot venture into military support, but even if the government wanted to, the country does not have the resources to seriously contribute, which is an uncomfortable truth for some walking the Europa Building halls. 

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