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'It's not just Ursula von der Leyen, it's broader than her': Irish MEPs on European politics failing

842 EU staff signed a letter accusing the commission of accelerating the legitimacy of war crimes in Gaza.

URSULA VON DER Leyen “does not speak for Ireland”.

That was the overwhelming comment made by many across the Irish political landscape from President Michael D Higgins to the Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald this week.

“A complete mess” is how some Irish MEPs categorised it, while People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said von der Leyen publicly giving unconditional support to the State of Israel is a resignable offence.  

Is she aware of the discomfort her actions have caused?

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dáil he personally told von der Leyen (though we don’t know if this was over the phone or by text) that her comments in the wake of the outbreak of conflict between Israel and Palestine “lacked balance”. 

But it’s not just those in Irish politics that have raised concerns about the EU Commission President travelling to Israel and pledging the unwavering support of Europe.

It was revealed yesterday that staff members of EU institutions have written to von der Leyen expressing anger over her stance on the Israel-Hamas conflict.

The letter, with 842 signatures, are from a wide range of EU countries including Ireland.

While the Commission President might have hoped that her later comments, which were seen as being more sensitive, might have taken the heat off of her, it now doesn’t look likely that the controversy will end any time soon.

At a time when European elections are around the corner and when MEPs push to get more voters to engage in European politics, it begs the question if her actions have now damaged the wider EU project? 

Fine Gael MEP for the Midlands North-West Maria Walsh told The Journal that she believes the von der Leyen’s actions of recent days merely damaged the Commission President’s “PR presence for a couple of days”.

Walsh disagreed that it has damaged the perception of the work of the EU bloc as a whole. 

Meanwhile Fine Gael MEP Colm Markey said “it’s not just Ursula von der Leyen, it is broader than Ursula von der Leyen and I think that is something we need to highlight”.

Both Walsh and Markey as members of Fine Gael, which belongs to the same European People’s Party (EPP) grouping, which von der Leyen is a member of.

Next week, the EU heads of state, opposition and party leaders of the EPP, including Leo Varadkar will attend the EPP Summit in Brussels where von der Leyen and President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola (who also travelled to Israel alongside von der Leyen) will be in attendance.

Will the European Commission President’s actions be raised at the summit and will she get a slap on the hand?

Walsh said she expects the matter will come up and the media will pick up on those conversations. However, she pointed out that the spotlight will also be on Metsola.

“I think it will come in on summit. Yeah, it probably will. But I think by that point, unfortunately, as the last 24 hours have gone in Gaza and Palestine and Israel as a whole, then, unfortunately, you’re going to have more pressing issues,” she said. 

‘Difficult conversations’ in the EPP

Walsh went on to state that Fine Gael, within the EPP grouping, has come up against some difficulties in the aftermath of the war breaking out.

Walsh said: 

Within the EPP group, I will say we’ve had some quite difficult conversations and debates. Probably a week ago, there would have been much more leaning towards pro- Israel and pro-Israel alone.

She said in the last couple of days there have been more “balanced conversations”. 

She said von der Leyen’s comments in more recent days should be welcomed.

“Would I have liked to see a humanitarian focus from the get go? Absolutely,” she said. 

“The conflict is happening because politics has failed,” she added.

“She’s [von der Leyen] corrected herself,” said Walsh, with the MEP stating that she had more of an issue with the Hungarian Commissioner tweeting out that aid was being cut off from the Palestinian people.

With politics failing, as Walsh put it, the big question is can the EU play a significant role here, or has the mixed messages damaged its credibility as being any sort of serious player on the international stage.

Walsh said Europe needs to ensure a ceasefire gets called for. 

“Not everybody’s calling for that. We need to be asking why everybody’s not on the same page in terms of ceasefires,” she asked. 

Speaking about the EU resolution passed during the week on the conflict, Markey said he is very much behind calling for a ceasefire, but people in the parliament weren’t willing to back the language of a ceasefire.

He said: 

As far as I’m concerned, people aren’t going near far enough on this. I wouldn’t even say they are fudging it, they are going beyond fudging it.
If we can’t agree to a resolution that says a ceasefire makes sense then there’s a real problem.

When there is revisionism of events in six months or three years time, “some comments might look hollow”, said Markey. 

“They already look hollow… I think that’s something we have to be conscious of,” he added. 

“I think Europe is aware of Ireland’s history. Let’s use the voices of Ireland’s history to bring a bit of reason to the situation,” said Markey, stating that Ireland is in a unique position to see both sides in conflict situations.