THE year 2019 started in Europe in the same way things had been throughout the past 12 months, with smaller countries at the heart of European Union decision-making.

Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar spent 40 minutes on the phone on Thursday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussing how to make progress with the UK on Brexit. They both promised to “stand by” the Withdrawal Agreement struck with Theresa May, with Varadkar stressing that Ireland will not accept any alterations that would make the backstop inoperable.

Amid the growing prospect of the UK crashing out of the EU at the end of March without a deal, Varadkar said: “The threat of a no deal isn’t one that Ireland is making, isn’t one that the European Union is making and it is for the UK to propose an acceptable solution.”

He added: “It is up to them to make a proposal but it has to be a proposal that we can accept. The threat of no deal can be taken off the table at any time by the UK Parliament, either by ratifying the agreement that the 28 governments have made or by seeking an extension to Article 50 to allow more time for us to negotiate what needs to be negotiated.”

The strength of Ireland’s position within the EU has infuriated extreme Brexiteers such as former UK Government minister Priti Patel, who went as far as to suggest the risk of no-deal Brexit food shortages in Ireland should be used as a threat.

The sheer poor taste of a Westminster politician threatening food shortages to a country which suffered one million deaths during the great famine of the 19th century under British rule beggars belief.

Having completely ignored the importance of the Irish question, of an open border on the island of Ireland, and the maintenance of peace and the Good Friday Agreement, pro-Brexit UK politicians are still struggling to square

the circle. Meanwhile, Ireland has had the complete support of other EU countries during key negotiations over recent months. This fell during the six-month rotating presidency of the EU Council by Austria. The Alpine republic is almost exactly the same size as Scotland, but has been able to wield considerable power in the driving seat of inter-government EU relations.

The Austrians have acknowledged that Brexit was among the greatest challenges of their presidency. Their young chancellor Sebastian Kurz stresses: “Austria did everything it could to maintain unity among the EU 27.”

He travelled regularly to other European capitals, including Dublin and London, to try to support progress in the Brexit process.

Kurz, who learned his English in Ireland, has a close friendship with Varadkar and, like his colleagues among the EU27, was strongly resolved to protect Ireland’s position in negotiations.

Unlike the UK media and political classes, who have been totally obsessed with the Brexit process, other European countries have been focused on a much wider agenda.

This has included changes to migration policy, the importance of the western Balkans to an enlarged EU, updated environmental and climate protection, securing Jewish life in Europe and combating anti-Semitism as well as a push for improved economic ties between Europe and Africa.

This all took place during the Austrian presidency, when there were 2722 events and meetings, including four meetings of heads of state or government; 36 Council of Ministers meetings in Brussels and Luxembourg; 2062 sessions of Council preparatory bodies; 161 trilogues with the European Parliament; seven European Parliament plenary sessions; 14 informal meetings of the various Council configurations; and 363 other presidency events.

Dozens of political agreements were reached, including 53 with the European Parliament and 75 in the Council of Ministers. Fifty-six conclusions and recommendations were adopted, a further 509 decisions were taken by the Council and 52 legal acts were signed by the Council and the European Parliament.

What both Austria and Ireland have shown is that small independent countries can and do exercise disproportionate power and influence in the European Union, certainly way beyond their relative population size. They are also countries that successfully pursue a global agenda.

This week, the latter country’s Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney, outlined plans aimed at doubling Ireland’s impact in the world by 2025. It will open 26 new embassies or consulates and will strengthen the existing network of 80 missions around the world.

By the end of 2019 Ireland will have opened the following new missions: Vancouver, Wellington, Monrovia, Mumbai, Bogotá, Santiago de Chile, Amman, Cardiff, Los Angeles and Frankfurt. By 2020 they will be joined by Kiev, Manila and Rabat.

This year will also mark the 40th anniversary of Vienna as the third United Nations headquarters. It is home to, among others, the International Atomic Energy Agency, United Nations Industrial Development Organisation, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the Preparatory Commission of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation.

Both Ireland and Austria have shown that they have gained sovereignty through their membership of the European Union and are ambitious about playing an international role, too. With only 83 days left until Brexit it is unsurprising that a growing number of people in Scotland are asking themselves how an isolated Brexit Britain can be our best future. One doesn’t have to look far to see many examples of better alternatives as a sovereign independent country playing a positive role in Europe and the world.