Varadkar participates in EU meeting after criticising Von der Leyen remarks

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA) President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)

Ireland’s premier has said there is a “great degree of unity” within the EU on the Israel-Hamas conflict, after earlier saying some of the comments from European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen have “lacked balance”.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was speaking after a meeting of the heads of government of the 27 member states with Ms von der Leyen, European Council president Charles Michel and high representative for foreign affairs Josep Borrell.

The Irish leader said EU countries will work together to open a humanitarian corridor to Gaza.

Speaking on Tuesday night after the meeting, he said: “There is strong condemnation of Hamas’s terrorist attack on Israel, its use of Palestinian civilians as human shields and taking of hostages as well.

Ursula von der Leyen
Ursula von der Leyen Ursula von der Leyen’s initial comments drew criticism (Henry Nicholls/PA)

“A lot of solidarity for France, for Belgium and for Sweden who’ve experienced terrorist attacks in the last couple of days and the real fear that we’ll see more of that happening in Europe.

“Support for Israel’s right to defend itself but a very clear view that that has limitations and Israel must act within the confines of international humanitarian law in the actions it takes.

“And a real effort that I think you’re going to see from European countries working together over the next couple of days to open a humanitarian corridor to Gaza, to try and gather EU passport holders out to safety, to avoid an escalation of conflict and to try and use the influence we have to ensure that we don’t see this escalation and spread to other parts of the region.”

Mr Varadkar said there was also a commitment to treble EU aid to Gaza.

The Irish leader said there were “differences of opinion and differences of emphasis” at the meeting.

Mr Varadkar had previously said he had told Ms von der Leyen his views on remarks she made on her visit to Israel last Friday.

The commission president has faced criticism for stating her support for Israel without any call for its actions in Gaza to comply with international law.

On Monday, Irish President Michael D Higgins criticised the EU Commission president, insisting she was “not speaking for Ireland”.

Gaza graphic
Gaza graphic (PA Graphics)

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Varadkar said: “What I would have taken away from the meeting was a strong view from a lot of us attending that meeting, that we needed to be balanced in our comments and what we say – and I think that was very much accepted by everyone.

“That yes, Israel has the right to defend itself but that’s not a carte blanche.

“Principles such as humanitarian law are universal and Europe has been very strong in its condemnation of the targeting of civilian infrastructure in Ukraine and those basic principles need to apply in all parts of the world, no matter who’s involved.”

He had earlier faced calls to condemn Ms von der Leyen as he faced questions in the Dail parliament on Tuesday.

Mr Varadkar said while he believed the commission president’s comments had “lacked balance”, he said her more recent statements on the war were more appropriate.

“The position of the European Union is the one agreed in the statement by the European Council and that was agreed on Sunday, after a lot of conversations over the weekend,” he said.

“And I hope we’ll be in a position to build on that position today at the extraordinary council of the European Union.

“It is the case that each EU member state has its own foreign policy. We only have a common foreign policy when we agree to have one and we can agree join statements.

Air strike wreckage
Air strike wreckage Palestinians look for survivors after an Israeli air strike on Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip (AP)

“And while I think that President Von der Leyen has done an extremely good job as president of the European Commission, whether it’s on issues such as climate issues, such as Covid issues, such as Ukraine, some of the statements that she made lacked balance, in my view. And I said that to her and I have no difficulty saying that.

“I do think statements that she’s made more recently were more balanced, specifically talking about the tripling of humanitarian aid for Gaza, and also the attempts that we’re making at the moment to organise a UN humanitarian airbridge from Gaza through Egypt.”

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald heavily criticised Ms von der Leyen during the exchanges at Leaders’ Questions.

“EU Commission President Von der Leyen’s unqualified support for Israel’s unmerciful military attack on the people of Gaza, her failure to assert the primacy of international law was reckless, inflammatory and dangerous,” she said.

“Ms von der Leyen does not speak for Ireland.”

Ms McDonald repeated her condemnation of the Hamas attacks, but she insisted Israel’s actions were “not defensive”.

“They are an offensive attack against a beleaguered, impoverished civilian population,” she said.

“It is the horrible crescendo of occupation, annexation and apartheid. This is not defence. These are crimes against human rights perpetrated in full view of the world. And if we don’t call this what it is, if the international community doesn’t stand unified against it, then history will record this as the defining failure of our generation and our children and our grandchildren will ask us how this was allowed to happen.

“Peace and justice demands that Gaza not become the graveyard of international law.

“Israel’s blockade must end, the bombardment of Gaza must stop and ceasefires called, hostages released and space created for a dialogue.”

Social Democrats leader Holly Cairns had called on Mr Varadkar to condemn the commission president.

“This isn’t a war, it’s a genocide and ethnic cleansing, and the response of the EU has not just been inadequate, it has been callous, indifferent and dangerous,” she said.

“This reached rock bottom on Friday when Ursula von der Leyen visited Israel. By then Israel had dropped 6,000 bombs and on an area half the size of Louth. Thousands were dead and injured. Food, water and electricity supplies had been cut off and the Israeli government had given 1.2 million people 24 hours’ notice to leave northern Gaza.

“What was the European Commission president’s response to this litany of war crimes and breaches of international law? She stood with the Israeli prime minister and offered him the EU’s unqualified and unconditional support.

“She said Israel can count on the EU.

“Taoiseach, last year when Russia targeted civilian infrastructure and cut off electricity supplies, Ursula von der Leyen called out their war crimes.

“When Israel acts similarly, she not only fails to utter a single word of criticism, she goes to the region to offer support for their war crimes in our name.

“The commission president’s failure to unequivocally condemn Israel’s collective punishment of the Palestinian people has undermined the EU’s response to this crisis. Given Von der Leyen has no authority to override member states’ foreign policy positions, her comments also amounted to a serious overreach of authority.”

Mr Varadkar reiterated his view that Israel could not inflict “collective punishment” on the people of Gaza for the actions of Hamas.

“I want to say once again that Ireland unreservedly condemns the brutal attack by Hamas and other militant groups on Israel and the devastating loss of life that it has caused,” he said.

“We also condemn the terrorist attacks that occurred in France last week and Belgium only yesterday.

“We also demand the release of all hostages without any conditions immediately. Israel has the right to defend itself and to pursue Hamas terrorists who attacked its civilian population, and we accept that right.

“However, Israel’s response must be exercised within the parameters of international humanitarian law. Even wars have rules. Collective punishment should not be inflicted on the population in 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.”

He added: “It is the case that Hamas hides itself among the civilian population, but they’re not to blame for that and there can be no excuse and no acceptance of civilians being targeted, or civilian infrastructure being targeted in this way.”

Joe and Helen O’Toole Community Nursing Unit in Tuam opening
Joe and Helen O’Toole Community Nursing Unit in Tuam opening Tanaiste Micheal Martin (Niall Carson/PA)

Ireland’s deputy prime minister said the decision by the Israeli military to tell the entire civilian population in the north of the Gaza Strip to move southward was “unrealistic, unworkable and deeply dangerous”.

Micheal Martin, who is also Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence, added: “We are now seeing the terrible humanitarian consequences. There is an urgent need for humanitarian corridors to be established, to deliver vital assistance to Palestinian civilians.”

Appearing before an Irish parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, he said Ireland supported a “humanitarian pause in hostilities to allow humanitarian aid” into Gaza.

He said there was “a lot of effort” among the international community for humanitarian corridors and “restraint more generally”.

Mr Martin said Ireland was also engaging with UN, Israeli and Egyptian authorities to get Irish citizens out of Gaza through the Rafah crossing.

He called on the international community to increase financial support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).