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Ursula von der Leyen

'One visit' to Israel not a reason to oppose von der Leyen’s second term bid, says McGrath

The finance minister has said the government has not discussed whether it will back the EC president.

THE GOVERNMENT HAS yet to discuss Ursula von der Leyen’s decision to seek a second term as president of the European Commission, according to Finance Minister Michael McGrath. 

Speaking to reporters he said he did not want to preempt what discussion or view the government might come to collectively, but added: 

“I wouldn’t see one visit [to Israel] being a reason for somebody not to be supported and not to go for a second term.”

Following five years of leading the 27-nation bloc, the 65-year-old was put forward by her German Christian Democratic Union party this week.

A second term in the post could make von der Leyen the most significant politician to represent the EU in a generation. 

Von der Leyen has also come 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.

Her comments ‘lacked balance’, Varadkar said

At the time, Varadkar, her EPP colleague, stated that he had spoken to her about his concerns, telling her that he believed some of her comments “lacked balance”.

Along with criticisms from Varadkar, the majority of Irish MEPs accused the Commission President of overstepping her mandate.

Her position and the stance of the EU has damaged the EU bloc’s reputation. 

Three-in-four Irish young people have said that the EU’s standing has been damaged as a result of the bloc’s response to the current conflict in Gaza.

In the first poll on voting preferences and sentiment ahead of June’s European elections, The Journal/Ireland Thinks found that those surveyed across all aged groups were markedly unsatisfied with the EU’s handling of the conflict.

Now with von der Leyen seeking a second bid at the presidency, where do politicians stand?  

McGrath told the media today that he felt there was an appropriate response by the Irish government to von der Leyen’s visit to Israel last October.

“I think the position of the European Union, as a collective, has evolved since that time. I would make the case that the position of Ireland, which I think has been quite consistent from the very beginning, has moved more more center stage in terms of the thinking across the European Union,” he added.

‘Done a great job’

Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe and Higher Education Minister Simon Harris were also asked this week if they would support their EPP colleague in her bid to hold on to her job. 

“I think Ursula von der Leyen has done an exceptional job as President of the European Commission. I’m delighted to see her put her name forward for a second term. She was an immensely strong supporter of Ireland during Brexit. She did an exceptional job during the Covid pandemic, despite the many challenges. I think she’s been an extremely successful leader of the European Commission,” said Donohoe.

Donohoe said he would leave the decision to Varadkar as to whether her candidacy should be supported, but added: “I think there’s broad recognition for the great job she’s done.”

Harris said he agreed with Donohoe’s comments. 

The public expenditure minister went on to state that the Irish government “made known” its view regarding the Commissioner’s early response to the events in Gaza.

“I think it’s important to evaluate any individual or political leader in the round. And while the government did have concerns regarding some of the statements and the earlier reaction back to the conflict in the Middle East.

“I would judge her leadership and her contributions to the European Union in the round I think she has been a really strong leader of the Commission and the European Union, and is well placed to provide stability at a time in which such change is taking place,” said Donohoe.

Sinn Féin and Labour

However, not all Irish politicians are as supportive. 

Labour’s Dublin candidate for the European elections Aodhán Ó Ríordáin TD said he was concerned about her second bid, and also about her remarks calling for a Defence Commissioner. 

“Von Der Leyen’s interventions on Gaza in particular have not been representative of Ireland’s position as she has continued to support Israel despite their on-going bombardment.

“The European project was founded out of a desire to end war and secure peace. Von Der Leyen’s rhetoric and actions have shown she does not represent this. She clearly has no aspirations for real peace, and this Fine Gael Government are supporting that,” he said.

Sinn Féin spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, Matt Carthy has called on the Irish government and EU candidates to clearly state that they will not support the reappointment of von der Leyen, stating that she has damaged the credibility of the European Union through her partisan interventions in support of Israel during the onslaught on Gaza.  

“In offering Netanyahu unconditional and unqualified support at a pivotal and escalating point in Israel’s onslaught against the civilian population of Gaza, Ursula von der Leyen provided political cover for the genocidal destruction that has unfolded in front of our eyes… By claiming to speak for Europe, von der Leyen undermined efforts to secure a ceasefire and save countless lives in Gaza,” claimed Carthy.

Jane Matthews and Christina Finn