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Dario Pignatelli
Analysis

Divided Europe: Ireland's voice at the EU table not loud enough to be heard this time around

Ireland had hoped for a stronger statement on the Israel-Hamas conflict.

IRELAND HAS A voice around the table at Europe, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar insisted to the media as he attended the two-day European Council meeting in Brussels.

Ahead of talks with other European leaders on the Israel-Hamas conflict, Varadkar had said Ireland’s plan was to call for more balanced language from the EU. 

He also wanted the other leaders to call for a ceasefire in the three-week-old war.

Europe, however, is divided on the issue.  

The 27-nation bloc is split between more pro-Palestinian members such as Ireland and Spain, and staunch backers of Israel including Germany and Austria.

Such divisions were even evident in the press corp at the council meeting, where Irish media were questioned by some of their German counterparts as to why Ireland was so invested in the Palestinian cause.  

Standing on the long red carpet, facing into a scrum of cameramen, journalists and  microphones, Varadkar also answered questions posed to him from some of the international media. 

One foreign correspondent mentioned United Nations General Secretary António Guterres, and how he had called for an immediate ceasefire. The EU often backed the position of the UN, he put it to Varadkar. So why not now? 

Responding, the Taoiseach said he hoped the EU would, but then tempered expectations. Knowing all too well that it was a long shot, Varadkar said the EU might not use the same language as the UN. 

However, going into the talks, Varadkar did appear optimistic. 

“We do have voice at the table. And if it wasn’t for the European Union, the voice of a small country like Ireland wouldn’t count for an awful lot, quite frankly, on a European level.

“And the fact that we have a voice at the table, along with a number of other countries, I think will allow us to recentre the common European position to one that’s balanced, one that recognises Israel’s right to defend itself, but also the Palestinians’ legitimate right to seek to have their own state.”

However, fast forward five hours  to when the talks concluded and the agreed text from Europe was released. No sign of the word ceasefire.  

In the end, it called for “humanitarian corridors and pauses” so aid can enter Gaza, but the statement fell short of demanding a “ceasefire”.

The focus among among the media covering the late night statement release was on the word ‘pause’.

The dictionary definition means: a short period in which an activity is stopped before starting again.

It was very clear once the statement was issued that Europe had not heeded Ireland’s calls.

Instead of a wider call for all sides to down arms, the call was for a momentary stop on bombardments to allow aid into Gaza. After the ‘pause’, one can only assume the bombing will continue.

Over the last couple of weeks, there is no denying that Europe has not shown a united front. The complete opposite, in fact. 

Confusion about where Europe stood began with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen travelling to Israel and pledging Europe’s unwavering support for Israel. The Israeli flag was also adorned on the commission building in Brussels. 

She subsequently appeared to walk back her comments somewhat, pledging aid to Gaza would increase threefold. 

Speaking to sources, it is understood there was fury within the European institutions, with the issue being the hot topic of conversation at the heart of Europe, and questions being posed about her future and whether it had been damaged by her actions.

In what could be seen as a nod to her visit to Israel, von der Leyen said at last night’s press conference that it was “good that so many leaders travelled to Israel to listen”, while also conveying the need for Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks on 7 October to be within international law.

Going into Thursday’s summit Varadkar said there was need to bear in mind and respect where other countries are coming from.

“You know, particularly countries” – Varadkar paused here – “that were involved in the terrible things that happened to Jewish people in the 1930s and 1940s. We need to understand where they’re coming from and why so many Jewish people had to return to Israel, their ancestral homeland, because of the events of the Holocaust.

“In Ireland we have a lot of sympathy for the Palestinian people, often driven by our own historical experience. But to get a consensus among 27 people we’re going to have to compromise, we’re going to have to understand each other.”

He pointed to how Europe has come along way – stating that there has been an evolving European position on the conflict.

“If you went back to three weeks ago, it appeared that the European Union was supporting Israel without any equivocation or qualification – that changed a week or so ago to continuing to support Israel’s right to defend itself but emphasising the supremacy of international law, humanitarian law, to yesterday, 27 countries calling for a pause to allow aid to get in and to allow citizens and hostages to get out. So I think you’re seeing an evolving position there,” said Varadkar. 

However, while Europe is talking and ‘evolving’, the bombs continue to rain down on Gaza. The short-term question remains – will Europe find the will to call for a ceasefire in the coming weeks, as this conflict continues? 

The answer was given by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on day two of the European Council meeting in Brussels today. 

“It’s hard to predict. I think that is possible depending on how things develop on the ground.

“In some ways, I hope that doesn’t happen, because if the European Union got to the position that it was calling for a ceasefire. It probably would be after a lot more people have died and suffered in the region. So, hopefully in some ways it doesn’t come to that.

“But I think it is possible that that could be the position in a few weeks or a few months’ time, to answer your question.”