European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. Picture: REUTERS/JOHANNA GERON
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. Picture: REUTERS/JOHANNA GERON

Brussels — When Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, was humiliated by Russia’s top diplomat Sergei Lavrov in front of TV cameras on Friday, it capped a torrid few days for the EU chief.

Battered by the bloc’s torpid Covid-19 vaccine rollout and a sudden unforced error over export restrictions that handed the UK the political upper hand for the first time since Brexit began, Von der Leyen was in a tough spot even before the embarrassment in Moscow.

Around EU institutions in Brussels and in the national capitals that gave her the job, insiders are asking how the commission’s first female president will be able to draw a line under the missteps and move the bloc forward.

Two diplomats said that after the problems of the previous few days they watched high representative of the commission Josep Borrell’s news conference in Russia with their heads in their hands. They said Von der Leyen has lost confidence among some EU governments, which will be difficult to win back.

Next comes the push for answers. On Wednesday, Von der Leyen encountered the wrath of members of the European parliament in Brussels when she appeared before them for the first time since this latest set of difficulties.

She said on Wednesday that the commission would have to see “what lessons we can draw” from the vaccination delays and admitted mistakes on the Brexit issue, which “I deeply regret”.

Lawmakers, who have the ultimate power to fire presidents and their commissioner teams en masse, have already hinted at their simmering anger, with more than 70 of them signing a letter this week calling for Borrell to quit.

Rocky future

The bloc is entering a pivotal period, when the EU’s most powerful leader, Angela Merkel, steps down in September, and with French President Emmanuel Macron heading towards an election in 2022, threatened by an ascendant far right. Without any certainty over when things will return to a post-pandemic normal and the economic recovery looking bumpy, the EU can’t afford too many more wrong moves.

The EU has been slow to vaccinate its people against the coronavirus compared to the UK and US, and the commission, which led negotiations with pharmaceutical companies, has taken much of the flak. While health-care has previously been a national responsibility, the bloc’s leaders accepted the need for the vaccine process to be centralised so that its smaller countries wouldn’t be left behind.

“It’s a fact that we’re not where we want to be in our fight against the virus,” Von der Leyen told lawmakers in Brussels on Wednesday. “We were late with the authorisation, we were too optimistic in respect to mass production, and maybe we were too confident that what we ordered would actually be delivered on time.”

Despite the criticisms directed at the EU’s foreign policy and vaccination effort, Von der Leyen still trusts Borrell and Stella Kyriakides, the EU’s health chief, according to a person familiar with her thinking. Merkel also lent her support to the commission, telling reporters last week that the EU did nothing wrong in its vaccine procurement strategy.

To add to the sense of turmoil, on January 29 the commission announced — then reversed a few hours later — a plan to invoke the Brexit deal’s emergency clause to bring in temporary export vaccine controls between the EU and Northern Ireland.

By tampering with one of the most sensitive part of a withdrawal agreement that took 3.5 years of painful negotiation, the commission managed to unite the prime ministers of the UK and Ireland, as well as opposing factions in Belfast.

“Mistakes were made in the process leading up to the decision and I deeply regret that,” Von der Leyen said. “I can assure you my commission will do the utmost to protect peace on the island of Ireland.”

Out of sight

Von der Leyen has made few public appearances, which critics argue won’t help counter a rising chorus of Eurosceptic politicians. She gave interviews published in several European newspapers on February 4, in which she acknowledged the bloc had “underestimated” challenges associated with vaccine production and, on the same day, addressed an online conference about how the 2020s will be the EU’s “digital decade”.

She last appeared at a news conference on January 21 after a virtual summit of the bloc’s national leaders.

The commission president fully supported Borrell’s trip to Moscow, the first such visit since his predecessor’s visit four years ago, according to people familiar with the situation, who asked not to be identified because the matter is private.

However, critics recoiled at his gushing public congratulations for Russia’s Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine, which hasn’t been approved by EU regulators; at how he was drawn into criticising American policy on Cuba; and, possibly worst of all, how he remained quiet when Lavrov described the EU as “unreliable”.

Borrell suffered his own grilling by the European parliament on Tuesday when he told them that his visit “presented obvious risks” but “I took them”.

He presented the situation as an opportunity to assess the Kremlin’s desire to work constructively with the EU. “I had no illusions before the visit,” he said. “I am even more worried after.”

Crisis brewing

Borrell’s visit, though, raises questions about EU decision-making when the bloc has got so much on its plate and the commission is struggling to communicate effectively, one EU official said. In isolation, each of the missteps can be explained, but taken together they risk looking like a crisis, the official said.

There has been nothing normal about Von der Leyen’s 14 months in office. The UK became the first country to leave the bloc nine weeks after she started in the job and the region has been in various states of lockdown because of the pandemic pretty much ever since.

So while the bloc’s 27 leaders understand the commission chief has been dealt a difficult hand, she needs to be able to convince them she’s got a handle on things by the time they meet for a two-day virtual summit at the end of February.



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