Ursula von der Leyen attempts to pin blame on deputy for embarrassing U-turn in vaccine export row

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
James Crisp
·4 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Key figures including Michel Barnier were kept out of the loop by the European Commission president - AFP
Key figures including Michel Barnier were kept out of the loop by the European Commission president - AFP

Ursula von der Leyen on Monday pinned the blame for the vaccine fiasco that led Brussels to threaten a hard border on the island of Ireland on her trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis.

The European Commission president threw her deputy, who leads DG Trade, under the bus amid rising anger from EU capitals at her “go it alone” tactics during last week’s battle with AstraZeneca.

Jean-Claude Juncker, Mrs von der Leyen's predecessor, said he was "very much opposed" to her export restriction measures.

In a speech in Stuttgart on Sunday, Mr Juncker also said of the EU’s vaccine procurement: "It all went too slow, it all should have been done more transparently, even though that would have been difficult."

“This regulation falls under the responsibility of Mr Dombrovskis,” said Eric Marmer, the European Commission’s chief spokesman, referring to the former prime minister of Latvia, a Brussels veteran with a reputation for caution.

“In my country we have a saying, ‘Only the Pope is infallible’. Mistakes can happen along the way the important thing is that you recognise them early on,” Mr Mamer said.

Alexander Stubb, the former prime minister of Finland who campaigned to be appointed European Commission, president was scathing about Mrs Von der Leyen.

He said "Number one rule of any leader: if your organisation screws up; never, ever blame your team publicly"

Mrs von der Leyen was forced into a humiliating climbdown on Friday after announcing Brussels would trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, to prevent AstraZeneca vaccines being smuggled into Britain from Northern Ireland.

The move, which was announced without notifying Ireland or Britain, would have created a “vaccine border” after years of Brexit talks to avoid a hard border on the island.

After the Irish prime minister called Mrs von der Leyen, the regulation, which could have facilitated a vaccine export ban to non-EU countries including Britain, was amended.

Mr Mamer said that the regulation to create an “export transparency mechanism”, which including the Article 16 measure, was passed provisionally and at speed by the entire College of Commissioners on Friday.

Asked by the Telegraph if this was Ms Van der Leyen’s worst week, he said: “We believe that we are on the right track since the beginning of this pandemic in ensuring there is as cohesive and as effective a European response as possible.

Mrs von der Leyen’s attempts to pass the buck cut no ice with EU diplomats, who suggested she had gone rogue, or German MPs in Berlin, who plan to summon Ursula von der Leyen for questioning.

In a further blow to Mrs von der Leyen, the move was led by MPs from her own party, Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU).

Mrs von der Leyen has refused calls for a public debate on the debacle in the European Parliament. Instead she will on Tuesday hold closed door meetings with MEPs with parties who approved her appointment.

It is understood that Mrs von der Leyen took personal charge of the vaccine row and that DG Trade’s senior official is Sabine Weyand, whose objections to triggering Article 16 were reported to have been overruled.

Ms Weyand is keenly aware of the political sensitivities around the Brexit divorce treaty’s Northern Ireland Protocol. She was Michel Barnier’s deputy Brexit negotiator and a key figure in the creation of the Irish border backstop.

Mr Barnier was also kept out of the loop, despite being appointed Ursula von der Leyen’s special adviser on the implementation of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement from which Article 16 springs and on the finalisation of the bilateral trade and cooperation agreement.

An EU diplomat told the Telegraph that ambassadors had asked the commission to change its tone in the fight with AstraZeneca last week but were ignored.

One EU diplomat told Le Figaro, “It is a wonderful reflection of working methods we have known about for a long time, namely of hyper-centralisation of Ursula von der Leyen’s cabinet with decisions made without consultation with the services concerned.”

"With this blunder, Brussels has given a whole bushel of ammunition to die-hard Brexiters,” wrote the conservative daily.

“Alarm bells that should have been ringing did not ring,” a European source told Le Monde.

The EU continues to lag behind Britain in vaccinations. The commission last week suggested AstraZeneca may have given reserved EU vaccine stock to the UK, which was behind the threat of the vaccine export ban.

In an interview on German TV, Mrs von der Leyen denied that the EU was losing the vaccine race to Britain and that the only race the EU was in was against the virus and time.

She swapped assurances that neither the UK or EU would block each other’s supplies with Boris Johnson, as she attempted to repair the reputational damage.

She announced a 75 million jab increase in deliveries of the Pfizer vaccine in the second quarter of the year, which she had already announced on January 8.

On Sunday, she confirmed that AstraZeneca would deliver 40 million doses in total in the first quarter -- nine million doses or 30 per cent more than it had previously said it could and a week earlier.