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Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis arrrives on March 18, 2015 at the parliament in Athens

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis arrrives on March 18, 2015 at the parliament in Athens

AFP/Getty Images

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis arrrives on March 18, 2015 at the parliament in Athens

European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, made light on Monday of intense debate sparked by his comment a week ago that he favoured establishing a "European army".

Asked about the comment, he told a conference: "I didn't want to launch a debate. Had this been my strategy, I would have been very proud of it."

He said he had simply responded in the affirmative when a German newspaper interviewer asked if he favoured a European army. But he stressed this was only a very long-term prospect.

"We need a European army," Juncker told the conference, organised by the Friends of Europe and the Jacques Delors Institute. He said such a body was required to defend the EU's goals and principles, but that this was not a short-term goal.

Last Tuesday, the Democratic Unionist Party called on US Vice President Joe Biden to apologise for casting a "slur" on Protestants by joking to an Irish delegation that no-one wearing orange was welcome in his house on St Patrick's Day.

A smiling Biden, speaking at the front door of his residence to a delegation led by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, quipped that "if you're wearing orange, you're not welcome in here" before adding that he was only joking.

"Whether they were intended as a joke or not, the comments are a slur on those who would be known as 'orange', ie, Protestants," William McCrea, a member of the DUP, said in a statement.

"When Northern Ireland is making such an effort to make St Patrick's Day an inclusive celebration, Joe Biden's comments were disgraceful and careless," he added.

Asked about the request for an apology, an official in Biden's office said the vice president had made it clear that he was joking.

With incendiary interviews, an undiplomatic demeanour, a celebrity photo shoot and an alleged obscene finger gesture, Yanis Varoufakis is becoming part of Greece's debt problem rather than the solution, or so his eurozone partners believe.

Many Greeks regard their new finance minister as a breath of fresh air, a man who has told his colleagues in the Eurogroup a few home truths about the futility of forcing austerity policies on an economy that has endured a depression for five years.

But his readiness to break the conventions of European discourse has caused consternation, and not just among the buttoned-up finance chiefs and bureaucrats who populate the Eurogroup.

The 53-year-old academic economist, who calls himself an "erratic Marxist", roared to prominence when the leftist Syriza party won an election in January and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras chose him as finance minister.

Less than two months into the job, he has alienated many interlocutors in Berlin, Brussels and Frankfurt, and risks becoming a liability as Greece struggles to avert bankruptcy and stay in the eurozone.

To Greeks, he is at last fighting the country's corner with a vigour they feel the previous conservative-led government lacked.

Varoufakis, whose relations with veteran German finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble, have deteriorated sharply in recent weeks, was not available for comment.

However, a Greek official said Varoufakis's "intellectual charisma" aroused admiration and scorn. "His cool leaves them speechless."

Last Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied abandoning his commitment to the eventual creation of a Palestinian state, backing away from comments he made during his re-election campaign that drew sharp criticism from the United States.

"I haven't changed my policy. I never retracted my speech in Bar-Ilan University six years ago calling for a demilitarised Palestinian state that recognises the Jewish state," Netanyahu said, two days after winning a bitterly contested Israeli election.

"What has changed is the reality," Netanyahu said, citing the Palestinian Authority's refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state and the Hamas militant group's continued control of the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu drew a sharp rebuke from the United States and the international community for his comments on the eve of Tuesday's election that there would be no Palestinian state created on his watch.

The quest for Palestinian statehood is a cornerstone of both US diplomacy going back decades and President Barack Obama's Middle East policy.

On Wednesday, the White House scolded Netanyahu for abandoning his commitment to negotiate for a Palestinian state and for "divisive" campaign rhetoric toward Israel's minority Arab voters.

Netanyahu backed off his election-eve comment on Thursday.

"I don't want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution. But for that, circumstances have to change," he told MSNBC.

Sunday Independent