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Commission President Ursula von der Leyen Alamy

Taoiseach and most FG MEPs back a second von der Leyen term - but issues raised over Gaza stance

Von der Leyen will be selected as the European People’s Party candidate this week in Bucharest.


MOST SITTING FINE Gael MEP have enthusiastically endorsed Ursula von der Leyen’s bid for a second-term as European Commission President. 

Today, the European People’s Party (EPP group), of which von der Leyen is a member, meets in Bucharest, Romania for a two-day congress.

While there, members are adopting the party’s manifesto ahead of the European Parliament elections in June and will elect the party’s lead candidate for President of the European Commission – current President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen.

Ireland’s five Fine Gael MEPs sit within the EPP group in the European Parliament and most will be in attendance in Bucharest alongside Taoiseach Leo Varadkar who will address the congress tomorrow morning. 

Speaking to reporters this afternoon, the Taoiseach said von der Leyen has his vote tomorrow. 

“She’s done a very good job. She’s been very good on Ukraine, very good on covid, very good on climate and nature.

“Very helpful to Ireland on Brexit. Very much had our back when it came to issues related to Brexit and was also willing to compromise and come to solutions with our British friends when needed,” he said.

On her approach to Israel and Gaza, the Taoiseach said he thinks her position has become “much more centred” in the last few weeks thank it was at the start.

He added: “And it was very crucially important that the European Union took the decision to restore funding to UNRWA, and actually to increase funding to Palestinians for their humanitarian needs when lots of EU member states have surrendered funding and it was her decision to restore.”

Speaking to The Journal ahead of the congress, four of Ireland’s five Fine Gael MEPs also said they support von der Leyen’s bid for a second term as Commission President. 

However Midlands North-West MEP Colm Markey said that he wants clarity on where von der Leyen stands on the conflict in the Middle East before offering his support.

‘Deeply troubled’

He told The Journal: “I am deeply troubled by President von der Leyen’s response to the conflict in the Middle East. Her unilateral stance and failure to condemn Israel’s indiscriminate bombing campaign in Gaza are concerning.

“Furthermore, the inadequate response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding before our eyes raises significant concerns.”

Von der Leyen came in for criticism from politicians, particularly in Ireland, and even from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar over the position she took in the outset of war between Israel and Hamas. 

She was fast to pledge support to Israel, despite concerns that the country’s response to Hamas’ attack 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 199 hostages, alongside a picture of the European Commission headquarters lit up with the Israeli flag.

But 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.

The same day that Israel ordered civilians in Gaza to evacuate within 24 hours – von der Leyen and European Parliament President Roberta Metsola visited Israel to express solidarity.

Separately, Markey also said he believes the Commission needs to “reconsider its approach” when it comes to the regulatory and administrative burdens being imposed on the SME and agriculture sector. 

Aside from these concerns, he said von der Leyen “deserves acknowledgement” for her work during Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic.

The other four MEPs were more eager about the prospect of another five years with von der Leyen at the helm of the Commission. 

Ireland South MEP Seán Kelly said while he does not agree with every aspect of her response to the conflict in the Middle East, he does believe she has been an effective leader of the Commission overall.

“I will support her in line with my party’s position,” he said.

Departing Dublin MEP Frances Fitzgerald said she was “delighted” that von der Leyen is seeking a second-term.

Over the past five years she has shown unparalleled leadership, especially at times of acute crisis,” she said citing Brexit, the pandemic and von der Leyen’s “unwavering” support for Ukraine.

She praised von der Leyen for her leadership of “the greenest and most climate-conscious Commission in the EU’s history” and noted the importance of her advocacy for the joint EU purchasing of Covid vaccines to ensure that small EU Member States would not lose out. 

“Many of these challenges are still with us, and the EU should not turn away from someone who is a first rate leader and an example of the benefits of a strong and united Europe,” Fitzgerald said. 

“We should also acknowledge her ongoing commitment to funding the UN relief agency UNWRA and similar organisations for the vital work they are doing in Gaza, including [the] announcement of €50 million in immediate funding for UNRWA and an additional €68 million in emergency funding to support Palestinians.”

Fellow departing MEP for Ireland South Deirdre Clune said she was also happy to support von der Leyen for the same reasons. 

Clune said von der Leyen’s “commitment to tackling climate change, implementing the Green Deal and supporting European food producers will be needed for the next term.”

Midlands North-West MEP Maria Walsh added that von der Leyen has remained steadfast in delivering for European citizens in the face of multiple crises, including the rollback of human rights across some European countries.

“While her focus on pursuing the green agenda has been quite controversial at times, even within my own group of the EPP, we must face up to the global climate and biodiversity crisis,” Walsh said.

She added: “Given the extent of the crisis, it’s incredibly important that we have a leader who understands the challenges and is committed to driving change and delivering a transition that is workable for all.”

The comments from MEPs come after a number of Cabinet ministers voiced their support for von der Leyen’s bid for a second term. 

How is the European Commission President appointed? 

Every five years the European Commission is renewed in line with the election cycle of the European Parliament. 

The President of the Commission is appointed following the European Parliament elections, which this year will take place in June.

The European Council (which is made up of the heads of state or government of each EU member state) proposes a candidate for President of the Commission.

This is done by a qualified majority and takes into account the results of the European Parliament elections – with the EPP group most likely to come out on top in.

The candidate is then elected by a majority of the Parliament. If a majority is not reached then the Council has one month to propose a new candidate.

Following the appointment of the President-elect, the Commissioners are then appointed to the European Commission. 

This is done with agreement between the Council of the European Union and the Commission’s President-elect.

With reporting from Christina Finn. 

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