18 March 2021

The EU has gone mad – and von der Leyen must take responsibility

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Vaccine nationalism, where every country or region of the world selfishly fighting for itself to roll out Covid vaccines and battling with others, “can only slow down the global fight against the virus”. Instead, what we need is “teamwork solving global problems” through worldwide cooperation and open markets.

These were the words of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen back in November when the first working vaccines had begun to appear.

Even then, von der Leyen should have known that the Commission she heads had been much slower on the uptake than the UK, Israel, the US and many other countries.

It should have already dawned on her that negotiating endlessly to get a lower purchasing price from BioNTech would mean that those who agreed to contracts earlier would get vaccines earlier. It should have been obvious too that “best effort” contracts with AstraZeneca might cause problems when in conflict with other, more stringent contracts the firm has concluded with the likes of the UK. Instead, she kept harping on about global action and fighting a war of words against ‘vaccine nationalism’.

Four months later, and von der Leyen has fully embraced the vaccine nationalism she had previously railed against, culminating in yesterday’s absurd press conference. “All options are on the table,” she warned sternly. “We are in the crisis of the century and I’m not ruling out anything for now because we have to make sure Europeans are vaccinated as soon as possible.”

“Not ruling out anything” includes, according to von der Leyen, potentially blocking vaccine exports to countries who don’t share their vaccines. It may even include waiving intellectual property rights from vaccine producers and seizing production altogether. “This is about making sure that Europe gets its fair share,” she claims – which seemingly includes adopting the economic outlook of Karl Marx, combined with the strategic subtlety of Donald Trump. It is also unclear what the “fair share” that Europe is supposed to get is: wouldn’t a “fair share” be the one that the EU negotiated itself with vaccine producers?

But none of this seems to be a concern anymore: no one in Berlaymont seems to care about honouring contracts or accepting that a vaccine producer might have more than one contractual commitment. No interest either in free trade and open markets, nor in diplomacy. The agenda now is simple enough: threaten the vaccine producers, threaten other countries, and never, ever admit to any mistakes.

There is little doubt that Ursula von der Leyen’s first year as the Commission President has been a massive failure that will cost many lives, many euros, and many livelihoods, with much of Europe likely stuck in lockdown for much longer than necessary. Of course, neither von der Leyen nor anyone else could have imagined back in 2019, when she accepted the position, that the crisis of a century would come along during her presidency. No one would have expected her to do a perfect job in such an unprecedented situation.

Nevertheless, the way the European Commission and national governments have handled the EU’s vaccine strategy has been nothing short of an embarrassment – one that gets starker by the day as other countries, not least the perfidious Brits, push forward with much greater success.

It’s not all that surprising, though: everyone who has followed von der Leyen’s political career in Germany could have told you she’s the last person you would want in charge during a crisis. Hers is a record of consistent failure.

As Germany’s Family Minister from 2005, she made big (empty) promises to reform family life, but little happened eventually. As Labour Minister from 2009, she promised free lunch for school children, but while the rulebooks got thicker, the lunch plates stayed empty. As defence minister, the last political position she held prior to becoming Commission President, she signed illegal contracts, agreed to costly refurbishing projects, and was investigated for potential wrongdoing in how the ministry used outside consultants.

Obviously, none of this was her fault: the mistakes were all made “far below my level”. Indeed, she only got away with this serial incompetence because “just as the time had come for evaluations, she had already climbed up to the next rung on her career ladder,” as Der Spiegel noted in a withering profile of von der Leyen’s ‘achievements’.

Now the same pattern is repeating, at a much higher level and with far more at stake. This time, however, she has nowhere to turn. In January, as it became ever clearer that the EU had not purchased vaccines early enough and the pressure was mounting on her, she reverted to panic mode, with threats to Astra Zeneca, and an abortive attempt to break the Northern Ireland Protocol just days after it came into force. This time she did at least acknowledge some errors, but blamed her Economy Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis – again, of course, it wasn’t her fault.

With this latest threat to block exports, however, the Commission seems to have completely lost its mind – at the same time as various national governments have inexplicably halted their AstraZeneca vaccinations. Seizing production from vaccine producers, the very people whose miraculous work offers a route out of this crisis, would surely be the final straw.

And yet, it doesn’t seem to matter for von der Leyen. However much she makes a laughing stock of the bloc, the Teflon-coated president seems to soldier on. If ever there was an example of the perils of ‘ever closer union’, von der Leyen has provided it.

The lack of accountability in Brussels doesn’t help matters. It is possible for the European Parliament to vote out the president, but only by securing a two-thirds majority and getting rid of the entire Commission. Given that MEPs voted for that very Commission not long ago, that seems pretty unlikely (in fairness, it did nearly happen in 1999, but the Commission resigned before the vote).

And that question of accountability and responsibility is paramount here. That is true for the national leaders who have botched their Covid responses and vaccine rollouts. But it is even truer for those at the top of the hierarchy. Surely now, after all this failure, von der Leyen and her Commission should be considering its position? And if it doesn’t, perhaps MEPs should start to think the unthinkable and muster the votes to force them out.

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Kai Weiss is a Research and Outreach Officer at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member at the Hayek Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.