By Vincent Boland in Dublin
It is one of the biggest events in the European political calendar. The pre-European parliament election congress of the centre-right European People’s party, which concluded Friday in Dublin, was notable for several things. But three in particular stand out.
The first is that the congress – well organised, held at the new(ish) Dublin Convention Centre, and hosted by Fine Gael, the leading party in Ireland’s coalition government – was a triumph for Enda Kenny, the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister). He managed to both look and sound statesmanlike.
Moreover, Kenny’s rebuttal of José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, will have done his domestic poll ratings no harm at all. Barroso, an EPP member who attended the congress, lashed out at critics of his handling of the eurozone crisis, blaming “panic in the financial markets” and too much self-imposed austerity for the pain being felt across the eurozone economy.
Kenny dismissed that argument in an unusually forthright address: “There is little about the economic suffering of the Irish people that I would recommend to other Europeans,” he said. Ireland’s austerity programme was “not born out of some ideology” – which is what Barroso had just suggested. Even among Europe’s leading centre-right personalities, it seems, there is no agreement on the causes of the euro’s travails.
The second impression is that Jean-Claude Juncker, who was chosen as the EPP’s candidate to replace Barroso next year, is ambivalent about the job. He many not get it – Europe’s political leaders could ultimately decide that none of the candidates chosen by the party groups is suitable.
But even if the EPP wins the European parliament elections in May, and Juncker isn’t given the top job, he may not care too much. Asked after his selection what he would do if he was not nominated, he replied: “I will be angry.” Tongue very firmly in cheek as he spoke.
Finally, there was the strength of anti-Russian feeling among the delegates. Not surprisingly, the event was dominated by the crisis in Ukraine. Every political leader referred to it in speeches from the stage; there were countless references to Russia’s “aggressive” and “intolerable” actions and praise for the “courage” and “determination” of the Ukrainian people.
The virulence of anti-Russian sentiment was, no doubt, partly due to the fact that Vitali Klitschko and Yulia Tymoshenko, the two charismatic opposition leaders, were in attendance on Thursday and received cheers and standing ovations. But there was a notably tough speech from, for example, Poland’s Donald Tusk that was echoed elsewhere.
For Europe’s centre-right, Russia is most definitely the bad guy. Perhaps someone in Moscow should start worrying about that.