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Suddenly, VDL stands for Very Damaged Leader.
Two weeks of turmoil over the EU’s mishandled coronavirus vaccine strategy has weakened European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in the two institutions that matter most to her ability to carry on effectively as the top boss in Brussels.
In the European Council, among the heads of state and government who appointed her, von der Leyen faces an erosion of confidence. Some leaders now fear they relinquished too much control over procuring the vaccines needed to end the pandemic and reopen economies. Even heads who are publicly backing the EU’s joint-purchase plan admit it has been too slow and fallen far short.
In the Commission, among the 26 college members working under her — whose votes on EU policy are, theoretically, equal to her own — von der Leyen faces a deficit of trust amid allegations that she and her top aides are too controlling and insular. Some, like Irish Commissioner Mairead McGuinness, felt especially burned after being left in the dark about an initially botched vaccine export control regulation.
How serious or lasting the damage to von der Leyen remains to be seen. Some EU officials and diplomats predict that she will find herself reined in much more tightly by the Council. As national leaders face public outrage over the slow vaccine rollout, they may have little appetite to grant the Commission greater authority on health policy, as it has requested, or on anything else.
Exactly how and why the Commission stumbled so badly on vaccines will be discussed during a European Council tele-summit later this month. But one senior official said the mood had changed dramatically since the leaders’ last video conference on January 21, when they expressed concern about the slow pace of procurement but also full support for the Commission’s efforts.
“They had the backing of the 27,” the senior official said. “Days later, they have lost a lot of leaders — openly and less openly — along the way.” The official said some leaders felt they no longer had a grip on the situation. “We have to take back control of this system we have put in place,” the senior official said. “Otherwise, we risk losing the confidence of our citizens.”
The official said that von der Leyen had come in for criticism, in particular, over her failure to consult with capitals, especially Dublin, on the proposed export ban regulation. An initial version of the regulation set off a political firestorm because it triggered an emergency override of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement’s sensitive rules regarding the Northern Ireland border. Von der Leyen reversed course and dropped the override but the mistake seriously dented her credibility.
“If you take an important decision like this you have to consult your member states,” the senior official said.
Like McGuinness, and many commissioners, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator who during his four years battling London became a walking symbol of EU27 solidarity, was also blindsided by the override attempt. He quickly spoke out loudly and forcefully against it.
“That incident has weakened von der Leyen, even though it is in the member states’ interests not to weaken her more,” a Commission official close to Barnier said.
In a bid to contain the fallout, von der Leyen met behind closed doors last week with political groups in the European Parliament — the EU institution with the power to oust her — and delivered a series of vague mea culpas, in which she accepted responsibility but did not explain specifically what went wrong with the Brexit override. She acknowledged that she and other officials had failed to anticipate the myriad difficulties vaccine manufacturers would face in scaling up production.
Speaking to MEPs, and in two group interviews with reporters, von der Leyen said that in the end, it was all on her. “Whatever in the Commission is being done or decided, I have the full responsibility for,” she said in an interview with 10 news organizations including POLITICO.
In another interview, von der Leyen urged waiting until the end of her five-year mandate to judge her successes and failures, and she similarly has urged patience on assessing the vaccine program. “We should sum up what the delivery is or what the achievements and the downsides were when we’re done with the whole process,” she said.
Many national leaders are reluctant to criticize von der Leyen, or Brussels, publicly — partly because they are, in fact, von der Leyen’s bosses and therefore share responsibility, and partly because they do not want to embolden euroskeptics seeking to damage the EU.
“We should not shoot ourselves in our feet” a senior EU diplomat said. “What happened was certainly a mistake, and it was admitted,” the diplomat said, referring to the Brexit override issue. “But we are all on the same boat, we all need vaccines to be delivered quickly and this is the clear priority for all of us … let’s turn this page quickly and move on.”
Overall, EU countries, especially smaller ones, remain strongly supportive of von der Leyen’s effort to keep the EU unified on vaccine purchases and on their response to the pandemic in general, including border controls and COVID testing standards. National leaders, however, have made little secret of their disappointment about the lack of sufficient vaccine doses.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who often seeks domestic advantage at the expense of Brussels, accused the Commission of slowing the vaccine purchases by being tightfisted.
“The Brussels vaccine procurement is progressing slowly,” Orbán told state-owned Kossuth Rádió, on Friday morning. “My benevolent reading of this is that it was important for the Brussels bureaucrats that we get vaccines as cheaply as possible, which is understandable.” But he said citizens would prefer to pay more to get the shots faster.”
“For us, who are not Brussels bureaucrats but Hungarians, and we live here, and the sons of the different nations who organized in the union, for us the money is not irrelevant, but secondary compared to life,” he said, adding: “This perhaps is not as obvious in Brussels as it is here, in Budapest.”
Nevertheless, in a joint press conference with Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš later in the day, Orbán said that a political debate on the handling of the crisis should wait until after the pandemic and that he supported von der Leyen’s work. Babiš, who had come to Hungary to discuss the country’s experience battling COVID, said the best vaccines are those that are safe and immediately available — and that it was important not to make vaccines’ place of origin into a political question.
Perhaps the surest sign that von der Leyen is in some trouble came from public expressions of confidence from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, two of her most reliable supporters whose backing normally can be taken for granted. But even they did not try to deny that the EU has been slower to obtain vaccines than hoped.
“On vaccine production, I think we are in the middle of the battle and in the middle of the battle we have to fight,” Macron told reporters on Friday, adding that he fully supported the common purchase program to ensure equity among EU countries. Later, Macron added: “I want to salute the work of Mrs. von der Leyen and her European commissioners.”
But even Macron, in a velvet-gloved punch at Brussels, pronounced himself “very admiring” of the swifter vaccine efforts in the U.S.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte also acknowledged the EU’s shortfall but said all leaders are struggling to manage the pandemic, himself included. “The Commission is doing a tremendous job and there was sincere disappointment about the enormously rapid decline in the numbers of vaccines that we would receive,” Rutte told reporters in The Hague on Friday. “The Commission really tried to be diligent in taking the right steps. If I were to be doing a flawless job in the Netherlands I could comment on the European Commission, but that is not the case.”
Meanwhile in the College of Commissioners, where von der Leyen wields ultimate power, outright rebellion is unlikely but some officials say she is facing pressure to widen her circle of advisers, and improve communication not just among commissioners but in her own cabinet.
The two aides closest to her — chief of staff Björn Seibert and executive communications adviser Jens-Alexander Flosdorff — are longtime lieutenants who came with her from Berlin, where she was German defense minister. Some aides who are not as closely trusted say much of the president’s cabinet is Balkanized, with information shared on a need-to-know basis.
The presidential cabinet’s reputation for a tough work environment has in some cases made it difficult to recruit for positions, including a post as foreign affairs adviser, which is now filled on an acting basis.
Other officials suggested that the criticisms of von der Leyen’s working methods were exaggerated, and that the recent turmoil reflected how the Commission’s role has shifted in the past decade from the so-called “guardian of the treaties” to crisis manager requiring fast executive decision-making, including purchasing vaccines for the entire EU in a pandemic — a responsibility for which the Commission has little experience, in a situation for which there was no precedent.
Under pressure to act decisively, in an era of blazing-fast news cycles and incessantly-twittering political chatter on social media, the president’s office has far less time to collaborate among the 26 commissioners.
“I’m aware that a country might be a speedboat and the European Union more of a tanker, but this is the strength of the European Union,” von der Leyen said in a recent interview, describing the decision-making challenges on vaccine contracts during the pandemic. Asked specifically about communication within the college, the president praised the overall collaboration
“This college has grown together,” she said. “We have managed so much over the last year. It’s impressive to see how much we have grown into one team. Just for this pandemic. I think the number was that we had about 1,500 decisions that have been taken in the short amount of time and close to 900 emergency decisions, which of course then the pressure, the time pressure is always very high. This I acknowledge. And it’s, it’s a never-ending task … to communicate to all sides.”
The demands for the Commission to react with such speed have increased substantially since the 2015 migration crisis, Berlaymont insiders said, and became a new modus operandi under former President Jean-Claude Juncker and his cabinet chief, Martin Selmayr, who each had long experience in Brussels. Selmayr knew particularly well how to sail the proverbial tanker faster than its design intended, but officials with knowledge of the von der Leyen cabinet’s work methods said that Seibert during his first two years in Brussels has in fact relied on seasoned Commission hands. Several officials said that allegations that von der Leyen was taking orders from Berlin were unfairly exaggerated, though they acknowledged her long history with Merkel allows more frequent consultation.
After the chief executive of AstraZeneca, Pascal Soriot, escalated his battle with the Commission by giving a public interview insisting that he was not obligated by contract to produce a set number of vaccine doses but rather to make a “best effort,” officials said that von der Leyen and her team were under intense pressure to respond and to exert some control.
EU officials said the president became convinced that Soriot was lying about production problems at a plant in Belgium and, in fact, was simply giving preference to vaccine orders from the U.K. The result was the rushed, and flawed, export ban regulation. Other officials said they believed von der Leyen and the Commission had mismanaged the vaccine contracts and had failed to exercise proper oversight or learn the details of the manufacturing process in order to police it — essentially that their most serious mistakes happened behind the scenes.
One EU official said von der Leyen needed to make some highly public personnel changes to restore confidence. “We need some sort of discontinuity, it could be an appointment, a reorganization,” the EU official said. “Something that shows a difference.”
Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian member of the European Parliament who is co-leader of the Greens group, said the Commission missteps were understandable. “Did the European Commission make mistakes in the handling of the pandemic? Yes of course, who does not,” Lamberts said. But he said that von der Leyen, the Commission’s first woman president, was unfairly criticized.
“I find that there is a gender bias,” Lamberts said. “Now I hear, ‘Well she centralizes. She’s a control freak.’ When a man does that well it’s strong leadership, the guy knows where he wants to go. When a lady does that, she’s basically inept as a leader.”
Some of the toughest criticism of von der Leyen has come from her home country of Germany, where the contest to succeed Merkel, von der Leyen’s political patron in their center-right Christian Democrat Union party, is heating up.
Jens Geier, a member of the European Parliament who leads the German Social Democrat delegation, said that the export control regulation was not the first time von der Leyen’s team had bypassed relevant commissioners in pushing through a major initiative. Last spring, Geeier said, a senior commission who should have been involved was cut out of the initial drafting of the EU’s coronavirus rescue plan.
“This is a pattern she brought from Berlin,” Geier said. “She keeps things under the closest control possible, and gives nobody the opportunity to say something, or be consulted. It is damaging for her credibility because her style of leadership has caused a serious crisis, and she must draw lessons from it.” Geier added: “She probably has reasons to rethink her leadership style.”
Lili Bayer, Rym Momtaz, and Eline Schaart contributed reporting.