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The Irish Are Jostling for Europe’s Top Jobs and It Could Get Dirty

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Nothing sums up the layers of intrigue, the petty infighting, the dubious deal-making, and the dirty political one-upmanship in the race for Europe’s top jobs than what is about to be unleashed in Ireland.

As elections loom — for the EU next June and in Ireland probably a few months later — Irish politicians are already jostling for roles even though very few of them have a realistic chance of winning, and potential appointments hinge on so many other things falling into place it’s almost too complicated to write about.

With the next changing of the guard a year away, when governments get to nominate a new commissioner in the wake of the EU-wide vote, this article is based on interviews with a string of officials with knowledge of the European and Irish political scene. They were granted anonymity to give them freedom to discuss the wheeling and dealing that’s already getting under way.

The two Irish politicians who already hold senior jobs in Brussels are the most in the spotlight: Mairead McGuinness, European finance commissioner, and Paschal Donohoe, who chairs gatherings of eurozone finance ministers, the Eurogroup.

Their task even to hold on to their current positions is made tougher because of a quirk in today’s EU set-up that sees Ireland hold four senior finance positions. They have compatriots who are ECB chief economist and the head of the Commission’s financial services department. And Sharon Donnery, deputy governor of the Central Bank of Ireland, is widely expected to join the race to become the EU’s top banking supervisor.

In the EU’s jobs jigsaw, that sort of concentration of one nationality usually doesn’t last long.

A crack for the craic

According to people with knowledge of the matter, both McGuinness and Donohoe want a crack at becoming Ireland’s commissioner for the 2024-29 term — although they may only want it if what’s on offer is a portfolio more senior to the one McGuinness holds now. 

Neither of them are likely to get it, more senior or otherwise. At least not unless a lot else falls into place.

That’s because the person who, under the country’s coalition deal, will nominate Ireland’s commissioner, Deputy Prime Minister Micheál Martin, might choose to do the job himself.

And if he doesn’t, he’s more likely to give it to someone in his own party — and not necessarily as a reward, but to get shot of a potential rival.

Martin is the leader of Fianna Fáil, the largest party in Dublin’s governing coalition, while McGuinness and Donohoe are both members of Fine Gael, the party of Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. Speculation in Dublin suggests Martin could be minded to send Fianna Fáil colleagues Jim O’Callaghan or Michael McGrath to Brussels.

But still, don’t give up on McGuinness and Donohoe just yet.

Martin in the Europa?

In a sign the parlor game over top EU posts is already hotting up, there’s one option being touted behind closed doors that would throw a firework into the whole thing: Martin takes over as president of the European Council, replacing Belgium’s Charles Michel. 

This theory does have its merit. As a former prime minister, Martin has clout yet wouldn’t be seen as such a big figure that he’d overshadow national leaders. And, like Michel, he’s a member of the liberal Renew Europe group, which would count in his favor if Ursula von der Leyen, a member of the European People’s Party, returns, as expected, as Commission president.

If Martin got that job, the Irish commissioner post would still be up for grabs and so McGuinness or Donohoe might get a look-in after all.

McGuinness would expect to have a decent chance. A woman would be important for the gender balance of the Commission’s top roles — and she’s close to von der Leyen. “She is recognized as a face of Europe,” she said recently of her boss.

Year to kill

But there are wider domestic considerations.

Martin’s plans aren’t clear. He may want to lead his party into Ireland’s national elections — scheduled for as late as early 2025, but with expectations of a fall 2024 ballot, only shortly after the EU elections in June.

McGuinness is widely expected to make a bid to become Irish president in 2025. Her problem would be that without a Commission post, she would have a difficult year to kill in between.

Donohoe’s grip on the Eurogroup is fragile because he’s facing electoral peril in his central Dublin constituency in next year’s national elections.

The wildcard is current Prime Minister Varadkar himself. He’s often been seen as a darling of the EU, particularly after his work on Brexit. He’s previously been considered a strong contender for a Brussels position and could fancy himself as a commissioner, particularly as his star wanes at home.

Longshot candidate

There’s a long way to go but it’s clear the starting gun has been fired early.

“I would be happy to serve another term as EU commissioner, but that is up to the Government of the day,” McGuinness said in an emailed comment. “I’m aware about speculation about my future but my focus is on the work of today, and will continue to be for the remainder of this Commission’s mandate.”

For his part, Donohoe, who has also been mooted as a longshot candidate to lead the International Monetary Fund, said he is focused on his mandate as Eurogroup chief. “That’s another two years. All I want to do is see that out,” he said.

Source : Politico

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