The only jabs European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is taking these days are from critics, especially in the German media.
The EU’s coronavirus vaccine rollout is going slower than expected, but if it’s any consolation, von der Leyen said Thursday that she’s in it with the rest of us — and has absolutely no idea when she will get her shot.
“This is a good question,” von der Leyen said with a chuckle toward the end of an interview with 10 European news organizations including POLITICO. “I do not know at the moment. We are … no I don’t know,” she said, laughing some more. “I can’t answer that question — when I get my vaccination — I must admit.”
An aide started to remind her that EU officials are following Belgian national rules, but the president was already making the same point.
“We are in the scheme of the Belgian authorities,” von der Leyen said. “So I would have to ask, honestly.”
Depending on perspective, von der Leyen’s response could be seen as a refreshing display of selflessness or an alarming lack of awareness about when she and other officials essential to the continuity of government in Europe will receive their vaccines.
Taking the first view, her inability to answer was a sign that she has been more worried about trying to get vaccines purchased and distributed for the EU’s 440 million citizens than concerned about her own personal well-being, and proof that unlike some politicians, she is not jumping the queue ahead of high-risk groups like frontline medical workers, the elderly or people with chronic conditions.
Taking the second view, her lack of a response showed that the president responsible for 26 commissioners who have been forced to work nonstop throughout the pandemic — and to continue traveling on official business — as well as for countless other advisers and assistants, had no clue about when any of them might receive their vaccinations against the virus.
A senior EU official said a firm policy decision had been taken, with the approval of Johannes Hahn, the commissioner for budget and administration who oversees human resources, to follow the national rules of Belgium, the host country of the EU’s three main institutions. The senior official confirmed that Belgium has not given any priority to political officials in its first round of vaccinations.
For now, many European officials have refrained from grabbing preferential access to vaccinations, unlike in the U.S. where, for instance, Vice President Kamala Harris, who is 56 and in good health, received her Moderna shot on live television. In her New Year’s Address on December 30, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “I, too, will be vaccinated when my turn comes.”
The pandemic has put public officials in a quandary over the extent to which they should follow all of the same rules as regular citizens, particularly travel restrictions under lockdown conditions.
The Commission has repeatedly said that it is up to individual commissioners to decide what business travel is essential, and to manage their own risks. In some cases, official trips have led to multiple infection risks, and von der Leyen herself has twice been required to self-isolate because of potential contact with infected individuals.