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Taoiseach Leo Varadkar Alamy Stock Photo
THE MORNING LEAD

Varadkar in Brussels for final EU summit as Taoiseach, as Ukraine, defence and Gaza top agenda

EU leaders are in Brussels today and tomorrow for the European Council meeting.

TAOISECH LEO VARADKAR will attend his final European Council meeting today in Brussels after his bombshell resignation yesterday.  

Even before his surprise announcement, the two day meeting of European leaders that kicks off in Brussels today was set to be an important one with Gaza, Ukraine, migration, agriculture and EU enlargement the priority topics up for discussion. 

Varadkar’s resignation came as a surprise to most yesterday, with even Tánaiste Micheál Martin admitting immediately after the announcement that he was caught off guard when Varadkar told him and fellow coalition leader Eamon Ryan about his plans the night before. 

In an emotional speech outside Government Buildings, Varadkar said it was important that leaders know when it is time to “pass the baton” and that they have the courage to do so. 

“Politicians are human beings. We have our limitations. We give it everything until we can’t anymore and then we have to move on,” he said.

Many questions remain as to what happens next, with virtually all opposition parties now calling for a general election. 

But for now it looks as though the coalition is happy to continue on with a new Fine Gael Taoiseach at the helm. 

“I remain committed to the continuation of Government to the fulfilment of our mandate and to the implementation of the programme for government,” the Tánaiste said yesterday. 

For Varadkar, his final weeks as leader of the country will have been marked by a period of political unease both at home and abroad. 

At home, the Government’s failed referendums earlier this month are likely to have fed into his decision to call it a day. 

While abroad, Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and the resulting humanitarian crisis have continued to remain high in the consciousness of the Irish public and cast a negative shadow over the Taoiseach’s St. Patrick’s Day trip to the US last week. 

There’s also been the ongoing issues around migration and the Government’s failure to source shelter for those seeking international protection in Ireland – with the situation again coming to a head last weekend as men who had been sleeping rough were bussed out of Dublin City just ahead of St Patrick’s Day.

Both the issues of migration and the ongoing situation in Gaza will be central topics discussed today and tomorrow by EU leaders. 

Agenda for the Council

In his invitation to EU leaders ahead of the Council meeting this week, President of the Council President Charles Michel outlined the priorities for the meeting. 

“Into the third year of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, we face a pivotal moment…Our foremost task is the swift provision of military aid to Ukraine and, building on recent initiatives like that of Czechia, the fast-track procurement and delivery of ammunition to Ukraine,” he wrote.

Second on Michel’s list was security and defence. 

“Now that we are facing the biggest security threat since the Second World War, it is high time we take radical and concrete steps to be defence-ready and put the EU’s economy on a “war footing”,” Michel warned. 

The President said it is also “imperative” that leaders address the situation in the Middle East and spoke of the need for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. 

He added: “Our efforts to prevent regional escalation need to be stepped-up, especially in Lebanon and the Red Sea.”

This week’s meeting of leaders will also have a focus on agriculture, with Michel noting that the bloc must “act decisively” on the challenges facing farmers who he said have voiced their concerns “loud and clear”.

Time will also be dedicated to discussing EU enlargement as well as migration.

Varadkar’s future plans

Elsewhere, ahead of the Taoiseach’s arrival in Brussels today, there has been speculation as to what is next for Varadkar. 

At just 45 years of age, the Taoiseach has not hinted yet as to what his future plans may be. 

In his speech yesterday he said: “I have nothing else lined up or in mind.”

But speaking later in the day, he did not rule out running again in the next general election. 

There has always been speculation that Varadkar may be interested in one of many top jobs in the EU and now some suggest that the timing of his resignation as Taoiseach might align with ambitions for President of the European Council. 

The European Council President is commonly held by a former head of state, usually from a country who is in the line up to chair the Council of the European Union.

Current president, Charles Michel, is the former Prime Minister of Belgium. The Government of Belgium currently chairs the Council of the EU.

In January, Michel announced he will not contest for re-election to the office and will see out the rest of the term until November, giving Ireland – and the next Fine Gael Taoiseach – the chance to nominate Varadkar as the next European Council President.

However, insiders say this might be a longshot.

With Ursula von der Leyen in the running for a second term as President of the European Commission it would be unusual for the top Council job to also go to a European People’s Party member. 

But as another insider said when asked about the possibility: “Never say never in politics”. 

Contains reporting by Muiris O’Cearbhaill

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