EU risked disintegrating in face of coronavirus threat, says Ursula von der Leyen

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Ursula von der Leyen adjusts her earpiece during the Covid vaccination strategy debate  - Johanna Geron/Reuters 
Ursula von der Leyen adjusts her earpiece during the Covid vaccination strategy debate - Johanna Geron/Reuters

The EU would have crumbled under the pressure of the coronavirus pandemic if it had not bought vaccines as a collective bloc, the president of the European Commission said

Ursula von der Leyen defended her under-fire vaccination strategy, which has been hit by supply delays and lags far behind the rollout of jabs in Britain, Israel and the US.

She said that the EU strategy of negotiating as a bloc had ensured that smaller member states had access to the jabs and at cheaper prices. Without the collective bargaining, she claimed, the EU would have collapsed amid infighting and resentment.

“I cannot even imagine what would have happened if just a handful of big players, big member states had rushed to it and everybody else would have been left empty handed,” she told the European Parliament.

“What would that have meant for our internal market and for the unity of Europe?” she said, “it would have been, I think the end of our community.”

Mrs von der Leyen apologised for almost imposing a hard vaccines border on the island of Ireland by triggering Article 16 of the Brexit divorce treaty during her row with AstraZeneca over supply shortfalls.

“The bottom line is that mistakes were made in the process leading up to the decision. And I deeply regret that. But in the end we got it right,” she said.

Brussels threatened a vaccine export ban amid fears EU stock had ended up in Britain and demanded UK-manufactured jabs be rerouted to the bloc.

Manfred Weber, the leader of the centre-Right European People’s Party, said a threatened EU vaccine export ban should stay on the table in talks.

“If the United Kingdom is not willing to deliver vaccine supplies to Europe then why should we deliver those to the United Kingdom?,” he said, referring to Belgium’s Pfizer plant.

Mrs von der Leyen admitted the EU had been late to authorise vaccines such as the AstraZeneca jab but, in a swipe at Britain, said the bloc would not take “shortcuts” to approve them. The UK used emergency powers to accelerate market approval of the vaccine.

“We've made a choice to not make any shortcuts, when it comes to safety or efficacy. And we fully defend that choice,” she said.

“There is no compromise possible when it's a matter of injecting a biologically active substance into an individual who is in good health.”

Mrs von der Leyen said, “We were late to authorise. We were too optimistic when it came to massive production, and perhaps we were too confident that what we ordered would actually be delivered on time.”

“We need to ask ourselves why that is the case and what lessons we can draw from this experience.”

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