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Ursula von der Leyen has refused to apologise for the coronavirus vaccines row that led to Brussels threatening a hard border on the island of Ireland and demanded she only be judged in three years' time when her term of office is over.
The under-fire European Commission president made clear she would not quit over the fiasco and defended the slow pace of the EU’s vaccination rollout compared with Britain, insisting it was “safer”, in newspaper interviews aimed at quelling growing criticism of her across the bloc.
Mrs von der Leyen, whose time as Germany’s defence minister was dogged by failure, was asked how things had gone so badly wrong a week after her commission attacked AstraZeneca for failing to fulfil vaccine orders.
"People are very stressed by the ongoing corona pandemic. I fully understand that anger and emotions," she said. “In politics there are always ups and downs and even more so in times of crisis, but what matters is the final assessment."
"Let's wait until the end of the term to see the successes and mistakes and then we will take stock," Mrs von der Leyen, whose five-year term finishes at the end of 2024, added.
Mrs von der Leyen will face MEPs from pro-EU European Parliament parties in behind closed meetings about the affair this evening.
While Britain used emergency procedures to grant market approval to the AstraZeneca vaccine, and signed a contract with the company three months before Brussels, the EU used a slower process overseen by the European Medicines Agency.
“The commission and the member states agreed not to compromise on the safety and efficacy requirements linked to the authorisation of a vaccine,” Mrs von der Leyen said.
"We make mistakes every day. We learn every day. That corona pandemic is like a rollercoaster. But I am convinced that we can only get out of this pandemic together.
“If every member state had entered the market for itself, the EU would not have had five of the six successful vaccines available now."
The commission launched an unprecedented attack on Astrazeneca last week after the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company said it could only supply a quarter of the jabs it had aimed for in the first quarter of the year.
Brussels accused AstraZeneca of breaching its contract and, amid suspicions it had supplied EU vaccine stock to the UK, launched plans to force all EU vaccine manufacturers to ask for permission before exporting jabs out of the bloc.
Mrs von der Leyen said the decision to trigger Article 16 of the Brexit treaty’s Northern Ireland Protocol was an error but did not take personal responsibility for the error, which was designed to prevent vaccines being smuggled to Britain from Northern Ireland if there was an EU vaccine export ban.
She was forced into a humiliating climbdown on Friday night after being called by Boris Johnson and Ireland’s prime minister over the move, which would have created a hard border on the island.
“I know how sensitive the Irish subject is. But when you take urgent decisions - in this year of crisis, the Commission has taken almost 900 - there is always a risk of missing something. I am relieved that we were able to find a solution,” she said.
On Monday, her spokesman pinned the blame on her trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis - but it is widely known in Brussels that Mrs von der Leyen took personal charge of the AstraZeneca affair.
Mrs von der Leyen said that she thought the EU could still hit its target of vaccinating 70 per cent of citizens by the summer but warned more vaccines would be needed to deal with variants of Covid-19.
Mrs von der Leyen said that the “worst” of the row with AstraZeneca was over after the company promised to provide an extra nine million jabs and begin deliveries a week earlier. But she insisted the company would be forced to fulfil its contract to provide up to 400million vaccines to the bloc.
Brussels last week demanded that UK-made vaccines be diverted to the EU to make up the shortfall. Britain and AstraZeneca said its deal would allow supplies from the two British factories to go to the EU but only once its order for 100million vaccines was fulfilled.
Mrs von der Leyen and Mr Johnson spoke over the weekend and swapped assurances that neither side was looking to block vaccine exports. Britain has ordered millions of jabs from Pfizer, which has a factory in EU member Belgium.
She said: "Nothing prevents the manufacturer from supplying us with doses made in the UK, as the contract stipulates, as long as London doesn't forbid it.
“It's up to AstraZeneca to organise itself to supply its customers, that's not our problem. What we want are plausible explanations and a calendar of future deliveries."
Despite criticism from her predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker, Mrs von der Leyen defended the export restrictions and its demand for export history from vaccine manufacturers for the last three months.
"We want to know what it has produced in its European factories, what was exported and what was stocked. Better transparency than rumours," she said.