What Boris succession could mean for Northern Ireland

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Boris Johnson bowed out yesterday (although he’s staying on until a successor is found) — a development met at most with a shrug or an eye roll in Brussels, where diplomats expect more of the same from the new British PM, whoever she or he may be. We’ll have a look at the main contenders’ position on Northern Ireland, since that is likely to stay as the main irritant between the EU and the UK.

In other contender news, we’ll examine who’s in the race for the top civil servant jobs in the European parliament and the EU Council.

All bets are off

Most EU diplomats hold very little hope that relations with the UK will improve once Boris Johnson leaves office. That is mainly because of fundamental divergences over the Northern Ireland protocol, which is likely to remain the biggest source of tension between London and Brussels no matter who the next prime minister will be, write Andy Bounds in Brussels and Jude Webber in Dublin.

Given that the leadership race still has some months to go before a successor is found, we thought it would be interesting to have a look at the odds that bookmakers give various candidates.

The favourite with some gamblers is actually a Remain voter who also has personal experience of Northern Ireland. Ben Wallace, 2-1 with bookmakers SkyBet, is the current defence secretary and well known in Brussels through his visits to Nato. The Lancashire MP served in Northern Ireland while in the army and was also a junior minister for the region.

Europe Express could not find any trace of public comments about the protocol but he stressed before the vote that Brexit would be bad for Northern Ireland.

Rishi Sunak, second favourite at 4-1 and a Brexiter, is known to be worried about the economic damage that would be caused by a trade war with the EU.

Penny Mordaunt, at 6-1, is more likely to pursue the policy to rip up and rewrite parts of the Northern Ireland protocol covering post-Brexit trade unilaterally.

Another former soldier is Tom Tugendhat, at 8-1, who is seen as softer on Brexit and might need to back the legislation to succeed. Foreign secretary Liz Truss, at 10-1, is the woman who introduced it in the first place.

As for London’s new point man in Northern Ireland, Shailesh Vara, his nomination yesterday inspired little confidence in Belfast, given that he was once ridiculed for calling Northern Ireland “part of Great Britain”.

When he quit the government of Theresa May, back in 2018, he wrote in his resignation letter that he could not support “being locked in a customs arrangement indefinitely” with the EU. As such, he is expected to support the hardline stance taken by Truss, who has introduced a bill to rip up and rewrite parts of the post-Brexit arrangement unilaterally.

That will go down well with the Democratic Unionist party, which is boycotting the region’s power-sharing institutions until the Irish Sea customs border for goods — imposed by the protocol — is scrapped. However, the majority of legislators in Belfast say the protocol, albeit with some changes, must stay.

“This man is coming to Northern Ireland at a time of volatility and fractured relationships. I’d say he’s the very last thing we need,” said Deirdre Heenan, professor of social policy at Ulster university.

Chart du jour: Who’s your favourite?

Tell us what you think and read more here about the key contenders to succeed Boris Johnson.

Secretaries-general, wanted

The race for the top civil servants in both the European parliament and the Council of the EU is heating up, even though their selection is on independent, parallel tracks, write Alice Hancock in Strasbourg and Valentina Pop in Brussels.

In the European parliament, the race started last month when the current secretary-general, Klaus Welle, who has held the job for 13 years, announced that he would step down at the end of the year.

A top contender for the post is Alessandro Chiocchetti, currently head of cabinet to the parliament’s president, Roberta Metsola. Chiocchetti is a parliament lifer, but has yet to earn the respect of colleagues, as many seem to be sceptical that he has got what it takes to do the job. “I don’t know why she appointed him as her chef de cabinet,” said one parliament official.

One box the Italian is ticking is party colour: Like Welle, who was feared by some and admired by others for his negotiating skills (his nickname was the “dark prince”), Chiocchetti is affiliated with the centre-right European People’s party, the largest political group. But that group’s power has started to fade, as national elections have swept other parties to power in many countries, notably in Germany with the election of centre-left chancellor Olaf Scholz and with the demise of the Republican party (EPP) in France.

To hold on to the secretary-general position, the EPP has sought to strike an odd deal with smaller groups including Renew and the Left. Two parliament directorate-general positions (head of the European Parliament Research Service, head of the Internal Policies of the Union unit) are set to come up for grabs this year so that gives the EPP two to offer out to the smaller groupings. The swift creation of the “Directorate General for Parliamentary Democratic Partnerships”, which thus far has an unclear remit, gives a carrot for the EPP to wave at the Left.

The Socialists and Democrats, the parliament’s second-largest group, has been left out of the horse-trading, despite attempts to engineer a deal with the EPP at the time of Metsola’s election in January in which it agreed to support Metsola in exchange for having its candidate, Markus Winkler, replace Welle.

S&D president Iratxe García Pérez said on Tuesday morning that the group had asked to postpone the issue and that it was “not part of any agreement”. “What we have heard as a group is that the names that will be put forward for this post have to have the right qualifications and training and the right personality traits.” Another centre-left MEP put it more simply: “The S&D is not willing to support the deal of the EPP.”

EPP officials have suggested that the S&D are after more power after Scholz’s win in Berlin but also say that the EPP wants as many groups as possible on board and that includes the S&D, if it is willing.

Welle does not officially leave his post until December but the firing gun has been set off with the job vacancy officially announced yesterday.

Meanwhile, in the EU Council, the position for secretary-general has been left vacant since May, when Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen left after seven years in office and less than halfway trough his second term to take up a position in the Danish foreign ministry. The top civil servant job in the 3,000-strong council is temporarily filled by director-general for institutional policy, Didier Seeuws, while EU council president Charles Michel is considering potential candidates.

Europe Express understands that there are several former (and current) ambassadors in the race, with Romania’s presidential adviser Luminiţa Odobescu seen as a frontrunner, given that she would be the first woman and the first eastern European to run the council’s administration.

France’s relentless ambassador, Philippe Léglise-Costa is also a top contender, although perhaps too assertive and strong-minded for some. There are also rumours about bringing in EU’s ambassador to Kyiv, Matti Maasikas, for the job. Maasikas is Estonian, which in the current constellation of secretaries-general could be a drawback, given that another Baltic diplomat, Latvia’s former EU ambassador Ilze Juhansone, is the secretary-general of the European Commission.

In terms of procedure, it is up to Michel to decide and for EU governments to confirm that appointment. With summer break soon upon Brussels, officials say it is likely the decision will only be taken in autumn.

What to watch today

  1. European Commission at UN retreat in Long Island

  2. G20 foreign ministers, including Russia’s Sergei Lavrov, meet in Bali

Smart reads

  • Gas cuts: Without Russian gas, the EU would have to reduce demand by 15 per cent, with big differences between countries, according to an analysis by Bruegel think-tank.

  • What data protection: EU’s border agency Frontex sidelined its own data protection watchdog in pursuing a controversial expansion of data collection from migrants and refugees to feed into Europol’s vast criminal databases, including genetic data, sexual orientation and religious beliefs, according to an investigation by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

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