A year ago, did anyone look like they would come out of Brexit better than Leo Varadkar? Here was a leader of a small country on the fringe of the EU suddenly catapulted to its centre. He was the one pushed forward by Juncker, Barnier, Merkel and Macron, as they sought to leverage advantage from the tricky problem of the Irish border. Not only was Varadkar seen to be standing up for the Republic’s interest, but by driving a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, he seemed to be setting himself up as the instigator of possible Irish reunification – he was drawing the issue away from the nationalists.
Last night, Varadkar resigned as Taoiseach after a humiliating general election defeat two weeks ago. Hardly any voters seemed interested in rewarding him for standing up for Ireland’s interests in the Brexit negotiations, and while Brexit seems to have rekindled the nationalists’ hope of Irish unity it wasn’t Varadkar and Fine Gael who prospered – it was the full-fat nationalists in the shape of Sinn Fein.
But the humiliation is not entirely over for Varadkar. For the moment, he stays on as caretaker leader until a government can be formed. In that capacity, it has fallen to him to negotiate the EU’s budget for the next seven years. These were never going to be easy negotiations given that the EU’s coffers have just been left with a Britain-sized hole. But if Varadkar was expecting any favours from the EU for his role in Brexit negotiations he has been left sorely disappointed. Ireland has been asked to pay more into the EU’s coffers while suffering sharp cuts both to payments for farmers under the Common Agricultural Policy and to infrastructure under EU cohesion funds. Varadkar has called the proposals ‘unacceptable’, but is unlikely to win any concessions given that Germany and a bundle of other Northern European ‘frugals’ are holding out strongly against any increased burden on them.
The sad thing is that Varadkar was exploited and now he has been hung out to dry. During the Brexit talks, he was drafted in to do the EU’s dirty work for it. The EU hit upon the issue of the Irish border as a device to try to trap the UK in EU regulations forever and Varadkar was used in order to help exaggerate the border issue. It never did make much sense why Britain would have to remain in full alignment with EU regulations purely to avoid a hard border in Ireland when Switzerland has a free-flowing border with several EU countries in spite of not being a member of the EU, the single market or the customs union. Even so, the EU nearly pulled off its trick. Had parliament voted for Theresa May’s deal – which even Boris and Jacob Rees-Mogg did at the third time of asking – the EU would now be rubbing its hands having neutralised the threat of a competitive, free-trading and deregulated Britain.
But the ruse failed, and with it, Varadkar’s stock has taken a horrible plunge. Let his fate serve as a warning to the leaders of other small EU countries – don’t expect any reward for acts of loyalty towards the EU’s leaders.