Ursula von der Leyen’s vaccine strategy bringing together strange bedfellows

Forging unity within the European Union is rarely easy for a president of the European commission but Ursula von der Leyen managed at least to bring two strange bedfellows together in recent days.

When Jean-Claude Juncker, her predecessor in the commission’s Berlaymont headquarters, took aim at the EU’s error-strewn vaccine strategy last week, it prompted a tweet of appreciation from Dominic Cummings, former chief adviser to Boris Johnson and key architect of Brexit.

“Juncker no dummy, he right,” the ex-Vote Leave strategist wrote. “& if Commission, now melting down, don’t listen, UK shd NOT tit-for-tat but shd make generous offer over heads of EU leaders to EUR peoples — will bring years of goodwill, good policy & politics, & Cmsn will cave shortly after.”

Von der Leyen is unlikely to lose sleep over the barb. As for Juncker’s intervention, sources close to the ex-president say his target was not Von der Leyen but instead the EU’s member states.

Between calling on his successor to drop the “stupid vaccine war” with Britain and criticising an overly cautious and budget-conscious approach to vaccine procurement, he dismissed calls for her resignation. “These are not failures of the commission. These are failures of the member states in total and so I don’t think that the getting rid of Mrs Von der Leyen would be helpful,” he told the BBC’s HARDtalk programme.

But critics within the commission describe Juncker’s broadside as “unprecedented”. It has been seen by many in Brussels as a reflection of the growing exasperation, both within the institution and the governments, of some of the member states at Von der Leyen’s performance.

The European commission was always likely to have a difficult pandemic, without the fiscal firepower and autonomy of action of a nation state. “We’re tired of being the scapegoat,” Von der Leyen said in a recent interview. But since January, she has been engaged in a bitter row with the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, and in turn the British government, over a shortfall in EU vaccine supplies, culminating last week in a broadening of the bloc’s powers to block exports.

Her aides point to the necessity of challenging a company that has fallen dramatically short on its promise of 120m doses of vaccine this quarter – just 30m are expected – and the need to confront Britain over its refusal to export any of those being made in the firm’s plants in Oxford and Staffordshire.

Others, however, question the tone of the commission’s communications and the subsequent focus on the UK’s lack of exports, a country with a population seven times smaller than the EU and with a small and stuttering vaccine production line. AstraZeneca has only delivered a third of expected deliveries to the UK in the first quarter of the year.

Diplomats complain Von der Leyen may be overly concerned about sating her critics in the CDU, the centre-right political party of which she and the German chancellor Angela Merkel are members, ahead of September’s federal election, where the slow progress of vaccination is being seen as a vote-decider. Britain’s success has heavily featured in the German media as a point of comparison.

Officials who have worked alongside Von der Leyen, who has chosen to live in an apartment on the 13th floor of the commission HQ in Brussels, add that she is overly insular, trusting and confiding in a small group, namely her head of cabinet Björn Seibert and communications adviser, Jens Flosdorff, both Germans. “Sleeping in the office doesn’t make for good decisions – rather a lack of perspective and political feel,” said one.

Last week’s events were a fresh cause of irritation for some. On the Wednesday, the commission published a revised regulation to allow the EU to block vaccine export requests to countries with better vaccination coverage or where, through contracts or law, exports or raw materials are being blocked from being sent to the bloc’s 27 member states.

The revised regulation had not been shared with a number of capitals, coming as a fait accompli just 24 hours before a summit of leaders. The prime ministers of Belgium and the Netherlands, Alexander De Croo and Mark Rutte, insisted on additional commitments to open supply chains in the Thursday night summit communiqué.

That development follows the debacle of the aborted attempt to draw an export border on the island of Ireland at the time of the announcement of the original export authorisation regulation. “It has been noticed that the commission has a habit of landing things on the member states and a number of us have raised our concerns,” said a senior diplomat.

Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund thinktank in Brussels, believes Von der Leyen’ gravest mistake is missing an opportunity to tell a “fantastic story” about EU openness.

“I think fundamentally she seems to be struggling with her basic narrative,” he said. “She tries to either be this sort of vaccine nationalist that is going to block exports of Pfizer even though they are in full compliance – a sort of sawn-off-shotgun approach, where you can fire it but you never know what you will hit; and on the other hand, the really good story of the EU basically at cost to itself in the short run helping supply the world.” Around 77m doses of vaccine have been exported from plants located in EU member states to 33 countries.

Kirkegaard said the enormous scale-up by Pfizer and other suppliers, with a further 360m doses by June set to join the 100m delivered this quarter, had only been possible due to the policy of keeping the EU open. The bloc will also be best placed to respond to new Covid-19 variants. “A leader that was a leader would have told that story,” he said. “She is the German commissioner, it is the biggest country, she has a special role in ‘keeping Germany happy’, so there is a lot of pressure coming from there. You look at the polls and there [are] a lot people in the CDU who are going to lose their jobs. They are looking for a scapegoat and she is in the firing line.”

But, Kirkegaard said, the battle over exports had been “nonsense”. Von der Leyen, he suggests, may have been guilty of letting Boris Johnson get under her skin.

“The UK is a tiny, tiny vaccine producer and will always be that. One of the biggest communication mistakes they made was that AstraZeneca supplies were down in the EU because they were up in the UK, which is absurd,” he said.

“They think of the UK [as] much more of an equal than it is. In vaccine production it is a mouse and the EU will very soon by far be the largest producer in the world … I think they should stop reading the Daily Mail.”


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