Pressure mounts on Von der Leyen as her shortcomings are brutally exposed by EU vaccine fiasco

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Brussels was determined to force AstraZeneca to its knees at the start of the week but by the end of it, it was the European Union which was left humiliated.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, today faces calls to resign amid accusations of a “vaccine nationalism” and fierce criticism in her home country of Germany.

Mrs von der Leyen, who had taken personal charge of the AstraZeneca issue, badly botched the response to the pharmaceutical company’s failure to fulfil EU orders of jabs.

She had moved to impose a “vaccine border” on the island of Ireland as she stepped up threats to impose an export ban on jabs to Britain. At a stroke, she trashed the bloc’s reputation worldwide and sacrificed the moral high ground the Commission had taken over the Irish border during Brexit negotiations.

Her decision to trigger Article 16 of the Brexit treaty’s Northern Irish protocol achieved the once unimaginable feat of uniting an unimpressed Michel Barnier, Irish prime minister Micheál Martin and Boris Johnson against her.

Mrs von der Leyen ordered a U-turn late on Saturday and blamed the crisis on “an oversight” – but the damage was done. Brussels had spiralled out of control, turning its own member states against it and ignoring their instructions.

It should have been very different. How had Mrs von der Leyen managed to turn a week that should have been a crowning moment for her administration into such an unmitigated disaster?

Brussels had planned for the first AstraZeneca jabs to be rolled out across the bloc once the European Medicines Agency approved the vaccine on Friday.

The European Commission, which negotiated the supplies on behalf of the 27 member states, would use the delivery as a symbol of the benefits of EU unity.

The inconvenient fact that the EU’s vaccination rollout was lagging far behind Brexit Britain would soon be forgotten in a flood of up to 400 million jabs; enough to vaccinate about half of all EU citizens.

The day couldn’t come soon enough for the EU’s heads of state and government, who had decided not to use the emergency authorisation procedures Britain used to fast-track the approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Commissioners in Brussels sneered that this was a safer, more responsible route than that taken by Boris Johnson.

Many EU governments had chosen not to buy doses of rival vaccines, preferring to wait for the cheaper and easier to store jab from the British-Swedish company, which had seen the bloc fall further behind in the vaccination race.

The slower pace was, however, exacting a political price on the bloc’s national leaders.

Polls in France showed Marine Le Pen trailing Emmanuel Macron by just 48 to 52 in second round voting intentions for next year’s presidential elections.

While the UK has distributed 11.86 jab doses per 100 people, France, where anti-vax beliefs have taken root, has only managed 2.08. In France, four-fifths of those hospitalised with Covid are more than 65 years old.

European newspapers were reporting that Mr Johnson’s vaccine gamble had paid off, which they said was a source of great frustration to the French, amid wall to wall coverage of the battle in Brussels.

Perhaps that is what motivated the French president to trash the AstraZeneca vaccine. Mr Macron said the jab was “almost ineffective for those over 65, and some say over 60”.

The cynical ploy came on Friday, the same day that the European Medicines Authority approved the vaccine for all ages, despite an earlier decision by German regulators to restrict it to the over 65s.

That decision, based on a temporary lack of data for the AstraZeneca vaccine, made sense for Germany because it had enough Pfizer vaccine for the older age group not to take the slight risk. Mr Macron had no such excuse.

But the German government was also facing questions about why it was lagging so far behind the UK, US and Israel.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn, still smarting after being overlooked as a successor to Angela Merkel, was determined to dodge the blame for the supply shortfall. He would soon be on maneuvers.

The strain was showing elsewhere in Europe as well. The normally docile Dutch erupted into days of rioting, their worst in 40 years, in protest against the imposition of a coronavirus curfew last weekend.

Dutch policemen arrest a man during clashes with a large group of young people on Beijerlandselaan in Rotterdam, on January 25, 2021 - MARCO DE SWART/ AFP
Dutch policemen arrest a man during clashes with a large group of young people on Beijerlandselaan in Rotterdam, on January 25, 2021 – MARCO DE SWART/ AFP

The Italian government was tearing itself apart over the handling of the second coronavirus wave and funds from the EU’s economic stimulus package. On Tuesday, Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte resigned as his coalition government collapsed.

Hungary had got tired of waiting for the EU collective purchasing plan to bear fruit, which Budapest bluntly described as “too slow”.

It became the first EU country to approve and order Russia’s Sputnik V jab and later in the week, also authorised a Covid-19 vaccine from China.

Spain announced that its vaccination programme would be delayed and were said to be increasingly impatient with the slow roll out.

The pressure was on the European Commission to deliver, which explains the furious reaction after AstraZeneca broke the news that there would be a shortfall in the supply.

The company would only be able to deliver a quarter of the jabs promised in the first quarter of the year, it said. There would be about 75 million vaccines missing because of production problems at its Belgian plant.

Mrs von der Leyen was determined that the member states would not point the finger of blame for the delays at her commission.

She had long insisted that the answer to the health crisis was “more Europe” and so the decision was made to launch a full frontal, and unprecedented, attack on AstraZeneca.

Over the weekend, suspicions grew in Brussels that AstraZeneca may have sold reserved EU vaccine stock to countries such as Britain which had paid a higher price for the jab.

Photo taken on Jan. 26, 2021 shows a screen displaying President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen attending the World Economic Forum (WEF) Virtual Event of the Davos Agenda and delivering a special address via video link in Brussels, Belgium. Belgium Brussels Wef Davos Agenda Von Der Leyen - 26 Jan 2021 -  Xinhua/Shutterstock
Photo taken on Jan. 26, 2021 shows a screen displaying President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen attending the World Economic Forum (WEF) Virtual Event of the Davos Agenda and delivering a special address via video link in Brussels, Belgium. Belgium Brussels Wef Davos Agenda Von Der Leyen – 26 Jan 2021 – Xinhua/Shutterstock

Despite the fact that AstraZeneca was providing the vaccine at cost price, the story was given legs by the Brussels spin machine. Their message was clear; this was not our fault.

On Monday, the European Commission’s chief spokesman bristled when the Telegraph suggested this could be a resigning matter for Mrs von der Leyen.

“Things are actually going very well,” he said at the commission’s regular press briefing. Those comments would come back to haunt him.

Diplomats in the Belgian capital began circulating news stories from last year, when the UK had signed a deal with AstraZeneca three months before the EU.

AstraZeneca had imported millions of vaccines from its EU plants to compensate for a delay in production of UK supplies of the jab. Perhaps these were jabs meant for the bloc, the anonymous briefers suggested.

The commission, which prides itself on its legal expertise and respect for the rule of law, turned the screws on AstraZeneca, accusing it of breaching its contract with Brussels.

Mrs von der Leyen gave Pascal Soriot, the CEO of AstraZeneca, a dressing down in a morning phone call. It was the first of three grillings for the boss, who was summoned to further two video conference meetings with the EU and national officials later that day.

Stella Kyriakides, the EU’s Health Commissioner, left the meeting and addressed the press. AstraZeneca’s explanations for the shortfall in supplies were “unsatisfactory”.

She demanded AstraZeneca provided a list of how many vaccines it had provided to each country, which the company, and the British government, has been desperate to keep secret.

The Cypriot commissioner dropped a bombshell. Brussels would introduce an “export transparency mechanism” by the end of the week, Ms Kyriakides said.

Cyprus’s EU commissioner said that manufacturers in the EU would have to ask Brussels for permission before exporting vaccines out of the bloc.

The threat of an EU export ban was clear. Britain, less than a month out of the Brexit transition period and expecting almost 3.5 million vaccines from Pfizer’s Belgian plant, was in the firing line.

It was the first of many signals that, as far as the commission was concerned, British public opinion of Brussels simply no longer mattered.

In Germany, Mr Spahn broadcast his approval of the plans for the export ban. Although German government sources strongly deny it, many suspect his ministry was responsible for incorrect stories in the Handelsblatt newspaper that the AstraZeneca jab was only 8 percent effective in the over 65’s.

On Tuesday, AstraZeneca’s CEO hit back. There was no contractual obligation to supply the vaccines beyond an obligation on the company to make “best reasonable efforts” to provide it, he said.

The company’s two production plants in Britain could help with the EU supply but, under the terms of the supply contract with the UK, only after a British order of 100 million jabs had been supplied.

An infuriated Brussels hit back hard on Wednesday. It demanded that AstraZeneca divert supplies of millions of UK-manufactured vaccines to the bloc and accused Mr Soriot of breaching confidentiality by revealing details of the contract.

It called on Mr Soriot, who endured another EU meeting that day, to agree to the publication of the bloc’s Advance Purchase Agreement.

Ms Kyriakides said the firm had “contractual, societal and moral obligations” to use all its facilities to make up the shortfall, and that there was “no hierarchy of factories”.

MEPs began to talk of a vaccine trade war unless the pharma company caved to the demands. Britain made clear its vaccines were going nowhere.

AstraZeneca was under intense pressure and huge reputational risk in the EU. Boris Johnson wisely refused to be drawn into the row, insisting it was purely between AstraZeneca and his EU allies.

The prime minister, long ridiculed on the Continent for his support of Brexit, was looking like the only adult in the room as the commission grew more and more shrill in its demands. In contrast, the Government called for constructive dialogue to solve the issue.

On Thursday, Belgian authorities, acting on a European Commission request, raided AstraZeneca’s plant in the French-speaking region in Wallonia.

The reason was to see if the company’s explanation of production problems was genuine but another motivation was to keep the pressure on the company.

Having secured AstraZeneca’s permission to release a redacted version of the contract, Mrs von der Leyen had a devastating salvo planned for Friday.

After the contract was released, the commission pointed to clauses that supported its arguments.

In one, AstraZeneca appeared to confirm that no other agreement would interfere with its supplies. Another clause said that, for the purposes of the deal, the two UK factories should be considered part of the EU.

Opinions were divided over who had the stronger legal case but eyebrows were raised that Mrs von der Leyen that very day had said there were no ‘best endeavour’ clauses in the contract. The published deal – accidentally released unredacted – had those clauses.

She either told an intentional lie to 447 million people or she didn’t know what was in her own contract,” Germany’s Bild Zeitung said yesterday.

EU officials demanded that Britain now publish its contract with the pharma company. This was followed up by the official announcement of the export transparency mechanism, which Ms Kyriakides ridiculously claimed was not aimed at any one country.

The UK, US and Canada were not on the list of countries exempted from the notification requirement for vaccine exports but Israel, which has run a successful vaccination campaign, and non-EU Switzerland were.

There was growing disquiet among some member states that the commission was going too far in its battle with AstraZeneca, although there were hawks who supported the Brussels muscle-flexing in the hopes of it signalling a new age of European “strategic autonomy”.

What happened next was to see those supporters rapidly desert Mrs von der Leyen.

The regulation for the export transparency mechanism revealed that the European Commission planned to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Irish Protocol.

Despite the warnings of her own trade experts over the triggering of Article 16, Mrs von der Leyen was set on imposing the hard vaccine border between North and the Republic.

Mr Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator and who is often called an “honorary Irishman” by Dublin thanks to his sympathies with the Republic and sensitivities over the border issue, was not in the loop.

In an astonishing gaffe, Mrs von der Leyen only deigned to inform Ireland she was triggering one of the most sensitive clauses in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement after the announcement.

It was a major breach of protocol, especially as Ireland is an EU member state and sensitivities over the border are so raw after Brexit.

She also did not give notice to Britain about the move, which was meant to prevent Northern Ireland becoming a back door entry of vaccine supplies to the UK.

Considering that the European Commission had spent the previous four years preaching the importance of open borders and peace on the island of Ireland, as well as criticising any suggestion from Britain of using the clause, it was an astonishing move.

It wasn’t long before the Irish prime minister was on the phone to the commission’s Berlaymont headquarters, where Mrs von der Leyen lives in a converted flat.

Boris Johnson was raising his concerns soon afterwards as the pressure began to build against the European Commission president.

At 11.45pm local time, about eight hours after the announcement, a statement was released saying that Article 16 , the so-called safeguard clause, would not be triggered after all.

The regulation was withdrawn to be amended but the transparency mechanism, and with it the threat of an export ban, entered into force yesterday.

What Mrs von der Leyen planned as a show of strength and a reassertion of control had demonstrated anything but.

“Lessons should be learned; the Protocol is not something to be tampered with lightly, it’s an essential, hard won compromise, protecting peace and trade for many,” said Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister,

Carl Bildt, the passionately pro-European former prime minister of Sweden, said: “I had hoped not to see the EU leading the world down the destructive path of vaccine nationalism,” he tweeted.

Trade experts were also unimpressed. “Disrupting the already fragile implementation of the Irish Protocol on the off chance that someone in the EU exports vaccines they don’t have, to a Northern Ireland that doesn’t need them, is folly of the highest order – and compounds a vaccine nationalist export control policy that is itself flawed and short-sighted,” said Dmitry Grozoubinski, the founder of ExplainTrade.

The European press was equally unforgiving, describing it as the “Brexit own goal” and potentially Mrs von der Leyen’s greatest failure.

In Berlin, the press and politicians discussed Mrs von der Leyen’s divisive leadership style, during her failed tenure as defence minister, which earned her the nickname “Shotgun Uschi”.

“She told no one. After four years of tedious skullduggery over the Irish backstop. Surely the commission could have thought of the optics?” said one top EU diplomat.

“This grandstanding goes against everything the commission was asked to do by the member states. They asked the commission to handle it but change the tone,” the diplomat said.

Another EU diplomat told the Telegraph: “The pressure on von der Leyen is huge and increasing. This is not a good look.”



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