Moment of truth for EU chief Von der Leyen - GulfToday

Moment of truth for EU chief Von der Leyen

Sean O'Grady


Associate Editor of the Independent.


European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen gestures as she meets Moldova’s President Maia Sandu at the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium File/Reuters

Before the EU’s comprehensive vaccine plan descended into a farce of screeching U-turns, bitter recriminations and a raid on a pharma factory, the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen sent this tweet to her half-million followers: “It’s Europe’s moment.” lt’s not aged well. It’s more like Von der Leyen’s moment of truth.

Somehow she has managed to make Boris Johnson look like a model of smooth efficiency and generous-minded statesmanship. It’s quite a perverse achievement, as unexpected as it is damaging to the EU’s prestige.

President Von der Leyen has been in charge, and she pushed for the EU to assume responsibility for defeating the virus. It isn’t working. Will she go? Should she go?

The case against her is obvious. She is responsible, ultimately, for the failure piled on failure that has brought ignominy on the European Union that she is supposed to be leading. It might be the fault of the perfidious AstraZeneca, of secret British dirty tricks, or of no one in particular (because this is 27 sovereign nations and getting consensus and action quickly is like herding cats).

Yet the fact remains that Europe’s citizens are basically still defenceless against a killer virus, and it need not be so; as it is not in America, Britain and Israel.

The mistakes in vaccine procurement, such as they were, were then compounded by profound errors of political judgement – threatening export bans and invoking Article 16 of the Brexit deal to cut Northern Ireland off from the British vaccine programme.

The Irish government was sidelined. Von der Leyen achieved something no one has before – Ulster loyalists and Irish republicans united at last in their contempt for her; 800 years of ancient tribal hatred dissolved in a matter of hours. Bravo!

Maybe she didn’t know what was going on (bad enough), or didn’t know what she was doing, but no matter; with great status and power comes duty and responsibility, and the buck stops at the Berlaymont. It seems unfair, in a sense, given that no other leader in the world has had to quit over similar failures.

Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Xi; all survived their various missteps, cover-ups and blunders, but that doesn’t make it OK. People always say the European Commission and its president are unaccountable and arrogant; here is an example to prove the point. It is also an opportunity to prove the opposite, ironically enough.

Von der Leyen, in her utopian way, made grand promises – too grand – for her vaccine plan. It was supposed to be the showpiece of her new European Health Union; proof, after Brexit, that the EU was of practical use to the people of Europe in their moment of distress. It has not turned out quite like that.

Writing in The Economist only last November, Von der Leyen declared: “Some countries see the quest for a vaccine as a race among global powers, reminiscent of the space race of the 1960s. This is an illusion. The only race is against the virus and against time.”

Yet, of course, her own panicky actions over what was a prosaic matter of commercial law certainly looked to be nationalistic, and in a particularly old-fashioned, brutal form. She did not live up to her own ideals.

Of course, it is also true that the EU vaccine shortage – which is real – doesn’t vindicate Brexit, but neither does it make the case for European integration. Von der Leyen’s problem was that she claimed that the response to Covid would be Europe’s “moment”, its finest hour if you will – and she failed to deliver.

In fact, the EU has been in disarray since the pandemic began. Rather than acting in solidarity, individual countries soon scattered and went their own way, banning exports of ventilators and protective equipment, closing borders, suspending Schengen and, indeed, ignoring the European Commission.

When the Italians and Spanish sought financial support from Brussels via so-called corona bonds, they were spurned derisively by Von der Leyen herself, who dismissed bonds guaranteed by all EU nations as “just a slogan”, and something that Germans wouldn’t like.

Soon after, she apologised, but the resentments have lingered. The EU and Von der Leyen are not regarded as friends in Italy. Nor in Ireland, obviously. Lately, the attacks on her in sections of the German press have also been pretty virulent. Her mixed record as a minister for social affairs and defence in the Merkel administration has been thrown back at her.

At any rate, she was not admired as a very effective administrator, and soon faded as a potential successor to Angela Merkel. Neither did she impress the European parliament, which only narrowly voted to ratify her appointment.

She was regarded around Brussels, by some at least, as precisely the kind of knackered, second-rate, has-been politician that notoriously gets packed off to be a European commissioner when they’ve outlived their usefulness at home.

It is not always true – Jacques Delors was a famously successful and charismatic commission president – but Von der Leyen came too close to the unflattering stereotype for comfort, even before the pandemic. Since then her reputation has suffered further. She has had a very bad crisis.

Getting shot of a European Commission president isn’t easy. Formally, the way to do it is to have the European parliament pass a motion of censure, or “no confidence”, which can only be done for the entire commission: a nuclear option.

It requires a two-thirds majority. There is only one rough precedent for this, about 20 years ago, when the Santer commission collapsed under allegations of corruption; but it is possible – and the European parliament is getting more assertive.

Von der Leyen is also in a weak position if she loses the confidence of national governments. It’s those governments that will be feeling the heat from their electors, and showing that they are doing something to fix the problem. It really depends on whether Chancellor Merkel will stick with her old colleague.

At any rate, the vaccine fiasco highlights the perceived disconnect between the lofty, honourable aims of the European project, and its practical usefulness to its citizens. Brexit should have illustrated just how much people can take the benefits of the EU for granted.

Europeans should put their gripes about its failings, real or perceived, into a much deeper perspective of the historic achievements of the EU. Instead Brexit, ridiculously, is being advertised as literally “good for your health”, and the wrong lesson drawn that national governments are best placed to succeed in projects of this sort.

The more pertinent lesson is that if Von der Leyen had actually been able to move more swiftly and decisively, and not have to wait for national governments to agree on everything, then the situation now might be very different and it might well be the “European success story” she promised. Maybe Von der Leyen might find a way of getting that argument into the public domain. Before she is pushed out.

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