Varadkar calls for ‘stronger language‘ from EU on Gaza

Irish Prime Minister says leaders must 'be wise to' increasing sympathy for Palestinians among European youth

Palestinians survey the rubble of destroyed buildings following an Israeli bombardment in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip.  AFP
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Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Thursday called on other European Union leaders to adopt “stronger language” despite divisions on the conflict in Gaza.

Pro-Palestinian sentiment has increased among western youth ahead of a crucial election year, according to Mr Varadkar.

“There's a major issue with [ …] the credibility that the EU has among young people,” Mr Varadkar said as he arrived at a meeting of the EU's 27 leaders in Brussels.

“The majority of voters under 40 in the US as well as the EU now are having more sympathy with Palestinians than with Israelis,” Mr Varadkar told reporters.

“That is a significant change and European leaders need to be wise to that.”

Mr Varadkar did not specify what polls he was referring to. A Gallup poll conducted in March, before the start of the Israel-Gaza conflict on October 7, showed that US Democrats had started to favour Palestinians for the first time.

An Economist/YouGov poll published in October pointed at a generational divide in the US with 28 per cent of 18 to 29-year-old respondents favouring Palestinians versus only 6 per cent among those over 65 years old.

A similar trend was found by YouGov last month in the UK, with 37 per cent of respondents aged between 18 and 24 sympathising with Palestinians, a figure which falls to 12 per cent among over-65s.

Both age groups also expressed a high level of indecisiveness on the conflict.

Elections will be held next year in a number of western countries, including European parliamentary elections in June and the US presidential election in November.

Ireland has been one of the most vocal EU countries on the Israel-Gaza conflict. A Hamas-led attack claimed the lives of 1,200 Israelis on October 7. More than 18.400 people in the Gaza strip have died in Israel's military response, according to local authorities.

“I think that the EU has lost credibility because of our inability to take a stronger and more united position on Israel and Palestine,” said Mr Varadkar.

Ireland, Spain, Belgium and Malta have urged EU council president Charles Michel to call for a ceasefire but such a position must be adopted by consensus and there are deep divisions among member states over the conflict. In October, EU leaders agreed on a call for “pauses”.

Seventeen out of 27 EU countries, including Ireland, voted for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” in the latest UN General Assembly vote on Tuesday, while eight abstained, and two – Austria and the Czech Republic – opposed the call for a ceasefire.

Pointing at the vote, Mr Varadkar said that “the centre of gravity within the EU is moving closer to the position that Ireland has been taking for some time, but still needs to move further, in my view.”

Lack of EU consensus on the conflict has caused the bloc to “lose credibility”, he said.

“We have lost credibility with the Global South, which actually is most of the world, because of what is perceived to be double standards. And there’s some truth to that, quite frankly.”

The EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, who also attended Thursday's meeting, said that “more and more countries are leaning on the side of asking for a ceasefire” but declined to comment on the potential outcome of Thursday's discussions.

EU leaders are also expected to discuss proposals to further sanction Hamas leaders. The group was listed as a terror organisation by the EU in 2003 and two of Hamas's senior military commanders were added on Friday to its terror blacklist.

Another topic of discussion supported by France, Belgium and Ireland will be to possibly bar Israeli settlers in the West Bank from Schengen territory. Israelis have visa-free access to the EU.

“I think there is broad consensus that Hamas is a terrorist organisation, while the question of settlers maybe needs to be more fine-tuned,” said an EU official ahead of the meeting.

The US last week decided to withhold visas to Israeli settlers who “undermine peace” in the West Bank.

The two-day discussions in Brussels are expected to be dominated by accession talks for Ukraine and financial support for the embattled country.

In a video address to EU leaders, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleaded for continued support as Hungary threatened to derail the process.

“I ask you one thing today – do not betray the people and their faith in Europe,” said Mr Zelenskyy.

The Ukrainian leader has just returned from a trip to the US during which he failed to obtain assurances that Congress would pass an aid package with billions for his country.

“Europe must win, agreements must be honoured, and words must matter,” said Mr Zelenskyy.

Updated: December 14, 2023, 2:49 PM