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Tense talks expected as Varadkar travels to EU Council meeting and EPP summit

A TENSE COUPLE of days are ahead for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has he travels to Brussels today to the first scheduled European Council meeting since the outbreak of the conflict between Israel and Hamas. 

Ireland is seen as somewhat of an outlier among EU states Europe in terms of its position on Palestine, and Varadkar has been critical of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s stance on the conflict in recent weeks. 

Aside from the European Council meeting, Varadkar will also be attending a meeting of the European People’s Party (EPP), the grouping of which Fine Gael is a member. 

Von der Leyen and President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola will also be in attendance. 

Pressure has been mounting on the pair, particularly von der Leyen, for pledging Europe’s unwavering support for Israel following the outbreak of the conflict. 

It is expected that the controversy will be raised at the EPP Summit today, where party leaders and heads of state will be in attendance alongside the likes of Varadkar and von der Leyen. 

As president of the European Commission von der Leyen was fast to pledge support to Israel, despite concerns that the country’s response to the 7 October Hamas attacks would have catastrophic impacts for Gaza’s civilian population. 

“The European Union stands with Israel,” she wrote on X, formerly Twitter, the day Hamas attacked civilians and captured hostages, alongside a picture of the European Commission headquarters lit up with the Israeli flag.

As events in the Middle East continued, the United Nations and others warned that Israel’s siege of Gaza in response to Hamas’ attack amounted to an illegal act under international law.

On 13 October von der Leyen and Metsola visited Israel to express solidarity.

But by the following day von der Leyen appeared to be feeling the pressure, issuing her first statement to acknowledge the threat to Gaza’s civilians. In it she announced that the EU would be tripling its humanitarian aid.

“There is no justification for Hamas’ heinous act of terror,” she wrote in a social media post. “Israel has the right to defend itself. At the same time civilians in Gaza are also victims of Hamas.”

The majority of Irish MEPs have accused the Commission President of overstepping her mandate.

Ireland’s voice at European level

Sinn Féin has called on the Taoiseach to be the voice of the Irish people at today’s council meeting over the next two days. 

Varadkar will attend the meeting in Brussels today and Friday where the situation in the Middle East, Ukraine, migration, EU finances, and economic issues, are on the agenda. 

Ahead of the meeting today, Sinn Féin has said that Varadkar must use his voice at European level to urge member states to follow the lead of UN Secretary General, António Guterres.

The UN chief this week expressed deep concern at “the clear violations of international humanitarian law”, calling Israel’s constant bombardment of Gaza and the level of destruction and civilian casualties “alarming”.

He called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire to deliver desperately needed food, water, medicine and fuel. He also appealed “to all to pull back from the brink before the violence claims even more lives and spreads even farther”.

Sinn Féin spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, Matt Carthy, called on the Taoiseach to call for the EU to change course in its approach to the conflict, stating that Guterres’ words should be heeded.

“Regrettably, the strength of his calls have not been matched from within the EU.

“In fact, the European Union, which has long championed itself as a leader for peace, international law and conflict resolution, has failed to live up to any of those principles in recent weeks.

“This week’s European Council meeting can be the opportunity to change course. Ireland must be the voice at EU level that condemns war crimes regardless of who commits them,” said Carthy. 

In making calls for a ceasefire, it may be that the Irish government will be in a minority on the European Council, Carthy pointed out. However, Varadkar will represent the views of the vast majority of the Irish people, added the Sinn Féin TD. 

Tense EPP Summit with von der Leyen

Pressure is also on Varadkar to highlight Irish concerns regarding von der Leyen at the EPP Summit today.

While Sinn Féin has called on Varadkar to use his voice at the European Council meeting, Independent Donegal TD Thomas Pringle told the Dáil last night that von der Leyen’s position should be discussed.

He called for her to resign from her position as President of the European Commission immediately, stating that she was justifying Israel’s horrific decision to cut off food, water and electricity to civilians in Gaza.

“President von der Leyen massively overstepped the mark and her actions are not only unacceptable but also unforgivable and extremely dangerous.  

“She cannot be allowed to continue in her role as President of the European Commission.  In fact, she cannot be allowed to represent the EU in any form any longer. She does not represent Europe as a whole and she certainly does not represent Ireland.”

Difficulties finding European consensus

Speaking in the Dáil yesterday ahead of travelling to Brussels today, the Taoiseach said the European Union does not have a single foreign policy, and when it comes to Israel and Palestine it can be very difficult to find consensus.

“We were able to agree compromise language and that was the basis of the European Council statement the weekend before last.

“We will try to do the same over the course of the next two days. I am sure that on Thursday or Friday in Brussels we will discuss cooperation with Israel.

“At the moment, as we all know, there is very strong support for Israel from most EU member states but that could change. That will depend on how Israel acts in the coming weeks and months.”

Highlighting the words of US President Joe Biden, where he described the events of 7 October in Israel as the Israeli people’s 9-11, Varadkar said the point being made is that Israel should not make the same mistakes the US made.

“It is very clear what he meant because the US made terrible mistakes after 9-11, which caused a lot of hurt in a lot of parts of the world and impacted on its influence.

“The point President Biden was making to Israel, if you read between the lines, was a message of restraint and is one we will be making as well.

“Regarding international law, our view as the Irish Government is that collective punishment that deliberately targets civilians and civilian infrastructure is a breach of international humanitarian law no matter who does it.

“We have been very clear and consistent on that. I cannot speak for the President of the European Commission or other member states, and nor would I, but I understand that other member states come from different perspectives.”

Because of the Holocaust, “a lot of countries feel historic guilt because of their involvement in that. We have to understand that”, Varadkar added.

The Taoiseach said it is a valid suggestion that Ireland would try to build an international alliance that looks for a ceasefire first and a peace initiative later.

However, he said to have any influence we cannot take absolutist positions.

“Once you take an absolutist position your influence is gone, unless you have other forms of power. You cannot be an honest broker in that kind of scenario.”

Political Editor Christina Finn will be reporting from the EPP Summit and the European Council meeting in Brussels over the next two days. Follow @christinafinn8 for all the updates.