Varadkar says he told von der Leyen her initial statements on Israel ‘lacked balance’

Ireland will call for a de-escalation of conflict at extraordinary meeting of the European Council today, Taoiseach says

Some of the statements European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has made in relation to the Israel-Hamas war have “lacked balance”, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.

Mr Varadkar said he had told Ms von der Leyen this, and that he had “no difficulty saying that”.

Speaking during Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil on Tuesday, the Taoiseach said some of her more recent statements, specifically talking about the tripling of EU humanitarian aid for Gaza and attempts to organise a UN humanitarian air bridge through Egypt were “more balanced”.

Mr Varadkar said Ireland would be calling for a de-escalation of conflict at the extraordinary meeting of the European Council on Tuesday afternoon via video. He said each EU member state had its own foreign policy, and there was only a common EU foreign policy “when we agree to have one”.

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The Fine Gael leader re-iterated that the Government “unreservedly” condemned the attack by Hamas and other militant groups on Israel and demanded the release of all hostages without any conditions “immediately”.

He said Israel had the right to defend itself but that its response “must be exercised within the parameters of international humanitarian law”.

“Even wars have rules,” he said. “Collective punishment should not be inflicted on the population and Gaza. Citizens must be protected, and Gaza must have access to humanitarian aid.

“There must be the establishment of humanitarian corridors. There’s also a need to prevent the conflict from escalating and spreading to other parts of the region, which is an enormous concern at the moment.”

Mr Varadkar said he expected the European Council would repeat its “strong support” for Israel’s right to defend itself but also hoped “we will call for a de-escalation of this conflict, and Ireland will be calling for humanitarian pause, so that refugees, including some of our own citizens can get out and supplies can get into Gaza”.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said Ms von der Leyen’s “unqualified support for Israel’s unmerciful military attack” on the people of Gaza and her failure to assert the primacy of international law was “reckless, inflammatory and dangerous”.

Ms McDonald said the president of the EU Commission did not speak for Ireland and that Israel’s actions were not defensive but “an offensive attack”.

She added that if the international community didn’t “call it for what it is” and didn’t stand unified against it, “then history will record this as the defining failure of our generation”.

Social Democrats leader Holly Cairns said the conflict in the Middle East was not a war but “a genocide and ethnic cleansing” and that the EU’s response had not just been inadequate, “it has been callous, indifferent and dangerous”.

“This reached rock bottom on Friday when Ursula von der Leyen visited Israel,” she said.

Ms Cairns said Ms von der Leyen’s failure to unequivocally condemn Israel’s collective punishment of the Palestinian people had undermined the EU’s response to this crisis.

“Given von der Leyen has no authority to override member state’s foreign policy positions her comments also amounted to a serious overreach of authority,” she said.

Other Opposition parties also criticised Ms von der Leyen’s approach, saying it would “embolden” Israel’s response.

People Before Profit have called for her resignation, while the Labour Party warned of “very dark days ahead”.

“We are on the brink of, if not in the midst of, a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza at the moment,” Labour TD Duncan Smith said on Tuesday morning.

“Where Israel seems to be going with the backing of Ursula von der Leyen and Joe Biden represents very, very dark days ahead,” Mr Smith said.

People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said he believes Ms von der Leyen should resign.

“She has publicly given unconditional support to the state of Israel at exactly the same time that it has publicly declared its intentions to commit war crimes. The ethnic cleansing of a million Palestinians is, under international law, a war crime.

“We also think that Ireland should call for Israel’s referral to the International Criminal Court for war crimes.”

People Before Profit’s Paul Murphy rowed in behind President Michael D Higgins’ criticism of Ms von der Leyen on Monday.

“Michael D Higgins is absolutely correct. Morally, her (von der Leyen) actions are repugnant. She has given a green light to war crimes supposedly representing the European Union. What she is doing is well outside the framework of EU law.”

Speaking on the sidelines of a food security event at the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation in Rome, Mr Higgins said a careful approach was needed to work towards peace talks to solve the conflict.

“I very much agree with those who have criticised the statement by the president of the Commission... the same way as I was very heavily critical of the so called-agreement with Tunisia in relation to migration,” Mr Higgins told journalists.

“I don’t know where the source of those decisions was. I don’t know where the legitimation for it was, and I don’t know where the authority for it is, and I don’t think it is helpful.”

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times