Ireland decides on abortion. But who is their pro-choice prime minister Leo Varadkar?

The pro-life stand is a mark of identity for the PN, but even their EPP friends in Ireland are moving the other way on abortion. JAMES DEBONO says the PN’s models in Europe can be radically different

Leo Varadkar
Leo Varadkar

Last Wednesday’s vote in the Maltese parliament during which the Nationalist Opposition voted unanimously against embryo freezing in a bid to “preserve life from the moment of conception”, is increasingly seen as a defining mark of identity for Adrian Delia’s PN.

But this rigid pro-life stance is not shared by one of the party’s allies on the continent: the PN cannot bring itself to accept embryo freezing, but their Irish counterparts have moved towards a pro-choice position on abortion.

Irish PM and fellow European People’s Party leader Leo Varadkar has been the driving force behind Friday’s Irish referendum to remove the constitutional ban on abortion.

Malta came closest to this kind of ban when in 2005 former Nationalist home affairs minister Tonio Borg toyed with the idea of entrenching the criminal provisions against abortion in the Maltese constitution. But now the Irish government intends to push forward legislation to allow unrestricted abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

This will leave Malta more isolated in Europe as the only member state banning abortion in all circumstances.

Even before the Irish referendum, Malta was the only EU member state to ban abortion in cases where the mother’s life is at risk. But along with Malta, Ireland was the only EU country to ban abortion in cases of rape, incest or fetal abnormality.

What is most surprising is that the leader of the Fine Gael – a centrist party affiliated with the European People’s Party of which the Nationalist Party is a member – is pushing the change.

Elected at the age of 38, the son of an Indian immigrant became Ireland’s first openly gay premier and its youngest ever prime minister. Previously he served as vice president of the youth-wing of the EPP.

But although inspired by Christian Democracy, his Fine Gael party was never overtly confessional. In 1983 it campaigned against the constitutional ban on abortion, because it found the wording too ambiguous. It was Fine Gael’s rival Fianna Fáil which had originally proposed the constitutional ban. Yet its leader Micheál Martin has now vocally supported its repeal to much of his party’s dismay.

In Friday’s referendum both main political parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, gave their members a free vote, but a majority of Fine Gael MPs backed the change.

On abortion Varadkar admits that like many Irish he had experienced a “fundamental shift” in his viewpoint. Pro-life till 2014 he now advocates making abortion legal in the first 12 months. “I still believe in life but I understand that there are circumstances under which pregnancies can’t continue.”

Asked if he was pro-choice, the Taoiseach said: “What do those words even mean? Every single person I know who says they’re pro-choice believes in some sort of restriction.”

pro choice campaigners hold up a poster of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian dentist, who died in 2012 at University Hospital Galway in Ireland due to the complications of a septic miscarriage at 17 weeks’ gestation. The miscarriage took seven days to unfold, and early in the process, when it was clear that the miscarriage was inevitable, Halappanavar requested an abortion
pro choice campaigners hold up a poster of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian dentist, who died in 2012 at University Hospital Galway in Ireland due to the complications of a septic miscarriage at 17 weeks’ gestation. The miscarriage took seven days to unfold, and early in the process, when it was clear that the miscarriage was inevitable, Halappanavar requested an abortion

Socially liberal and pro business

Varadkar represents a new generation of young European leaders who stand for free market economics and more socially liberal values. Varadkar is, in fact, often compared to French President Emmanuel Macron whose party En Marche displaced the Socialists as the main force on the centre-left. Yet Varadkar still forms part of an EPP, a grouping which includes Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban who is on the opposite side of the spectrum when it comes to European unity and openness to the world.

In Ireland Varadkar is perceived as having shifted his party to the right on economic issues. He favours lower tax rates and rewarding businesses. “We believe in rewarding work, innovation and talent. We believe in lower tax rates on income so that people can keep more of their own money… They know best how to use it”.

This is a significant shift in Fine Gael, which was traditionally aligned with the smaller Labour Party, and opposed to the more right-wing Fianna Fail, a member of the European liberals (ALDE). In many ways the two major parties in Ireland tend to defy ideological stereotypes in the same way as the PN and PL do in Malta.

Varadkar is no exception for the EPP. The German Christian Democrats, who are likely to change leader before the next election, may also have their own version of Vardakar to replace the more socially conservative but economically centrist Angela Merkel, who alienated her party’s conservative voters by opening German borders to Syrian refugees.

In many ways Merkel is closer to traditional Christian democracy, which influenced the Nationalist Party under Eddie Fenech Adami and Lawrence Gonzi. In centre-right circles, Jens Spahn is increasingly seen as the answer to the CDU’s biggest problem:  what to do the day Merkel exits the scene.

As a young, openly gay man, the 36-year-old Spahn is seen as having the potential to rejuvenate the aging party and broaden its appeal to socially liberal but economically conservative urban voters — while keeping its conservative core satisfied through more hawkish immigration policies and free market economics. In fact Spahn may bring the German CDU closer to the pro-business liberals and more distant from Merkel’s preferred coalition partners; the social democrats.

Merkel may be pushing the more left-of-centre Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer – nicknamed the “mini-Merkel” after strategically placed in the role of CDU secretary-general. She may be more inclined to continue the grand coalition with the social democrats or ally her party to the Greens.

The new right: as a young, openly gay man, the 36-year-old Jens Spahn is seen as having the potential to rejuvenate the aging CDU party in Germany, while in Austria 31-year old premier Sebastian Kurz is the right-wing’s equivalent of poster-boy politicians like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron
The new right: as a young, openly gay man, the 36-year-old Jens Spahn is seen as having the potential to rejuvenate the aging CDU party in Germany, while in Austria 31-year old premier Sebastian Kurz is the right-wing’s equivalent of poster-boy politicians like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron

A populist alternative

Yet Austria, Italy and Hungary offer another alternative for the European centre-right: a united populist right-wing.

Victor Orban’s Fidesz is part of the EPP but closer to the positions of the European far right than to Merkel’s centrism. While in Italy the anti-immigrant Lega Nord, which is not a member of the EPP, has emerged as the main party of the right, in Austria the Christian Democrats are the main partners in a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party.

A keen windsurfer and hiker, the 31-year old Austrian premier Sebastian Kurz is the right-wing’s equivalent of poster-boy politicians like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron. He has rebranded the party as the “New People’s Party”, changed its colour from black to turquoise, and has drawn in candidates from outside the Austrian People’s Party’s ranks. Kurz frequently reminds voters that he opposed opening the borders in 2015 during Europe’s immigration crisis. He also wants to restrict benefits for refugees and other new arrivals. He also supports the classically conservative positions such as lowering taxes for companies and opposing gay marriage.

It is very hard to pigeonhole ideologically topsy-turvy Maltese political parties in more rigid European political compartments. But with European elections looming next year it will be interesting to see how local parties position themselves in a European reality where the European socialists are in free fall and the EPP is increasingly divided.

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