It’s time to talk about Ursula von der Leyen.
Brussels spinmeisters, aided and abetted by the legions of EU apologists across the Continent, have staged an impressive diversion in recent days.
“AstraZeneca is screwing Europe over!” they shouted from the rooftops.
What triggered the touchiness was the uncomfortable realization that it has become painfully obvious that the real culprit behind what’s now commonly called “the chaos” resides on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont building.
In times of crisis, successful leaders rise to the occasion. But instead of seizing the moment, von der Leyen, who arrived in Brussels in 2019 from Germany’s defense ministry, has gone AWOL.
Von der Leyen might still be roaming the halls of Commission headquarters, but she’s shown no inclination to publicly take ownership of the mess she created.
“We’ve made good progress,” she insisted in a German television interview on Sunday.
The European Commission president’s defenders can parse the EU’s contracts with Big Pharma, defend the circuitous drug-approval protocols at the European Medicines Agency and bemoan Europe’s paucity of vaccine production all they want.
None of that changes the simple reality that at critical moments during the crisis, von der Leyen took decisions that have both hampered the rollout of the vaccine and strained the European Union’s cohesion.
Her most critical error occurred over the summer during negotiations with pharmaceutical companies. In contrast to the U.S., which showed up with a $10 billion checkbook, von der Leyen resolved to nickel-and-dime the drugmakers.
If ever there was a moment for the EU to throw money (and a degree of caution) out the window, this was it. Millions of lives were literally on the line. Instead, von der Leyen approached the discussion with drugmakers like a trade deal, even putting a seasoned EU trade negotiator in charge. In addition to a low price, Europe insisted that the drug companies assume legal liability for any screw-ups.
As a result, it took months to reach an agreement, putting Europe behind the U.S., the U.K. and Israel in the line for vaccines. The Commission didn’t manage to sign a deal with BioNTech/Pfizer, the first Big Pharma player to develop a vaccine, until after the German-American alliance announced its success in November.
Even so, in von der Leyen’s world, the Commission’s procurement effort was a big success, one that would benefit not just Europeans, but of all mankind.
“The Commission has secured to date at least 1.2 billion doses and fulfills its commitment to ensuring equitable access to safe, effective and affordable vaccines not only for EU citizens but also for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people,” she declared in mid-November, promising that the vaccines would be “quickly deployed” after regulatory approval.
Developments over the past few weeks point to a different outcome.
While the U.K. has immunized about 15 percent of its population, and the U.S. 8 percent, most EU countries have yet to crack the 3 percent threshold.
Then, as if to divert attention away from that failure, von der Leyen nearly triggered an international incident last week by invoking an emergency clause in the Brexit agreement designed to reimpose border checks between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The Commission intended the move as a warning shot to keep the vaccine producer AstraZeneca from smuggling vaccines produced in Europe to the U.K., but instead prompted howls of protest and warnings that Brussels was endangering the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the island of Ireland.
Von der Leyen quickly reversed course, but the damage was done.
For anyone familiar with von der Leyen’s record as a politician in Germany, her mismanagement of the COVID crisis should come as no surprise.
Though she was the longest-serving member of Angela Merkel’s Cabinet, von der Leyen was never a serious candidate to succeed the German leader as chancellor. For good reason.
In Brussels, she has followed much the same modus operandi as she did in Berlin, surrounding herself with a close-knit group of longtime advisers, whose loyalty to her counts more than their expertise.
On the rare occasions she speaks to the press, she gives priority to German outlets, relegating the rest of the press corps to “group interviews.”
In contrast to her most recent predecessors as Commission president, von der Leyen was never a national leader. As a result, she lacks the gravitas, attitude and stature that are often crucial to getting things done in the EU. In her dealings with Europe’s national leaders, she can’t play the “I’ve been in your shoes” card.
But then, for all intents and purposes, von der Leyen is still reporting to Berlin anyway. Though Germany has never been shy about exercising its influence in Brussels, having Merkel’s longtime subordinate preside over the Commission has effectively turned the Berlaymont into a satellite office of the Berlin Chancellory.
That became all too clear in late December, when, at Berlin’s urging, the EU cinched a controversial investment pact with China, ignoring the reservations of some capitals.
With Berlin at her back, von der Leyen has little to fear. But while her position as Commission president may be secure, her mishandling of the crisis has already damaged both her own credibility and the EU’s.
That’s what worries Europhiles across the Continent.
For many, calling out EU incompetence is tantamount to an attack on “the project,” as they reverently refer to the bloc. And the only people who benefit are the populists who are bent on destroying the EU. After Bavarian premier Markus Söder, a candidate to replace Merkel, laid blame for the shambolic vaccine strategy at the EU’s door last week, critics labeled his comments “dangerous.”
What Söder recognized, however, is that to deny the obvious could end up doing even more damage to the EU.
“Overall, I don’t think anything has gone wrong,” Merkel said on German television Tuesday evening, seeking to deflect attention away from the EU and, by extension, von der Leyen.
Yet Merkel’s rare prime-time appearance was itself a tacit acknowledgment that things have gone badly wrong.
“We have to build trust,” she said of Europe’s vaccine strategy.
A good first step would be to stop denying who led us here.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by WCT staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)