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Ursula von der Leyen praised Leo Varadkar’s leadership. Photo: REUTERS/Lorraine O'Sullivan

Ursula von der Leyen praised Leo Varadkar’s leadership. Photo: REUTERS/Lorraine O'Sullivan

Ursula von der Leyen praised Leo Varadkar’s leadership. Photo: REUTERS/Lorraine O'Sullivan

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has praised Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for his "leadership" in the Brexit process.

Her comments came as Fine Gael hopes to use their handling of the Brexit crisis as a central campaigning plank.

Ms Von der Leyen also praised the "unity of everybody here in Ireland" and the work of other politicians for the success of the Brexit process.

Her comments came as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil clashed over Brexit on the first day of the election campaign.

European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee said it was reckless of Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher to suggest he would vote against the Withdrawal Agreement when it is put before the European Parliament later this month.

"This 'red flag' from a senior MEP is yet another example of a Fianna Fáil party with no coherent plans for the country and who can't be trusted to be in charge of the next stage of the Brexit negotiations," Ms McEntee said.

Mr Varadkar also weighed in, saying he was "very concerned" by Mr Kelleher's comments, made in a letter to Tánaiste Simon Coveney.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said it was "silly" for Fine Gael to attack his party's commitment to the Brexit negotiations. Mr Martin also insisted Mr Kelleher would be voting for the Withdrawal Agreement.

However, last night, the former Cork North Central TD would not commit to voting for the deal until he got assurances on citizens' rights for people living in Northern Ireland.

"One of the only levers of persuasion you have in the European Parliament is your voice and your vote," he said.

He said people have come to him with "genuine fears" about what might happen to them once the UK leaves the EU and he was representing their views.

Mr Kelleher also noted that the parliament's negotiating team would be raising similar concerns when it meets with UK Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay next week.

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Mr Varadkar has made his role in brokering a Brexit deal a key pillar of Fine Gael's election campaign.

He has warned voters not to change the Government's negotiating team when it's only "half-time" in Brexit talks and criticised Fianna Fáil's alternative team of negotiators.

At press conference in Dublin, Ms Von der Leyen was asked about Mr Varadkar's claim and said it is a "golden rule" in the EU not to comment on such matters.

Ms Von der Leyen is a former minister in German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government. Ms Merkel's party is allied to Fine Gael in Europe.

The commission president said the Withdrawal Agreement brings "legal certainty" and avoids a hard Border in Ireland.

Ms Von der Leyen added that EU negotiator Michel Barnier told her: "It would not have been possible to reach this agreement without the very hard work, the patience and the unity of everybody here in Ireland."

She included the Irish Government, Opposition politicians and the civil service and said that without the "whole country coming together this would not have been possible".

"Therefore Leo, thank you a lot for your leadership and the co-operation that was excellent," she added.

"And I think we see now the results... are excellent too."

She arrived at Government Buildings to the noise of protesting beef farmers outside.

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