The bombshell in the EU’s new vaccine export controls that forced Ursula von der Leyen’s European Commission into a humiliating raid came almost without warning on Friday evening.
The text, written by a tight-knit group of the president’s team and other senior officials, was only emailed to commissioners 30 minutes before they approved it, people familiar with the subject.
“It is unlikely that any commissioners have read it in its entirety or not at all,” an official said. Michel Barnier, European Brexit negotiator, was not informed. Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin later said people had been “blinded”.
Almost immediately after the publication of the new rules to tackle the tightening of vaccine supplies in the European bloc, a fatal loophole appeared. The Commission had chosen to trigger a Brexit Treaty waiver to restrict exports to Northern Ireland – sparking outcry and disbelief in Dublin, London and Belfast.
The committee withdrew the text of the regulation from its website on Friday evening after Ms von der Leyen held emergency calls with Mr Martin and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Just before midnight, Brussels said the Northern Ireland measures would not, in fact, be triggered.
The fiasco capped a tumultuous week for Ms von der Leyen. The former German defense minister faces her most difficult time as committee chair just over a year after taking office, as she struggles to spur a slow vaccination campaign against Covid-19 and faces pressure from member states to sort out vaccine shortages with drug makers.
A diplomat warned that Brussels risked “ruining” its credibility on export controls. Officials blamed the management of Ms von der Leyen’s “silo”, which excluded many commissioners from decision-making and consultation.
It also left diplomats wondering about his inexperience in managing a big Brussels machine. “Decisions are made too quickly and in a tight circle,” one official said.
A senior EU official pointed out that while it would have been better not to include the Northern Ireland provisions, the committee was forced to act quickly on export controls given the crisis situation . Ms von der Leyen moved quickly to drop the problematic proposals, the official added.
Brussels has been on the defensive since AstraZeneca revealed at the end of January that it would massively follow through on vaccine production promises to the EU – even if it continues to honor its contract with the UK.
The commission staged a high-level battle with the company, arguing it should make up for shortfalls by operating its UK factories. Ms von der Leyen said on Sunday that AstraZeneca would increase its first quarter deliveries by 9 million doses, bringing the new expected total for the period to 40 million.
“Last night I had a very good conversation with Boris Johnson,” Von der Leyen told German television. “I was happy that he guaranteed that both [AstraZeneca] factories in the UK, of course, will also deliver to Europe. […]
She added: “The CEO of AstraZeneca told me today that, first of all, they will delay deliveries by a week so that we can expect the first deliveries from AstraZeneca by the end. of the next week. Second, they will increase the supply for February and March by about 30 percent. These are nine million [additional] doses. [Thirdly], they will increase production capacities in Europe. “
Amid huge concern from member states facing jab shortages, the commission last week rushed through a “transparency” mechanism to force companies to disclose when they export vaccines from the bloc.
Valdis Dombrovskis, trade commissioner, first assured that the commission did not want to impose restrictions on shipments. But the final rules will require companies to obtain clearance before shipping doses overseas, giving authorities the ability to block them.
The original measures also created border restrictions between Ireland and Northern Ireland as part of the crackdown. This involved invoking Article 16 of the protocol to the Brexit deal in Northern Ireland to “avoid serious societal hardship” – a move which sparked widespread outrage and briefly united political enemies in Dublin, London. and Belfast.
EU diplomats were among those who first became aware of the problem only through social media and news outlet reports – creating a storm of criticism which, within hours, forced the overthrow of the commission.
The episode is damaging for Ms von der Leyen, a doctor with a master’s degree in public health, who has focused much of her presidency on orchestrating a successful deployment of the vaccine.
A sign of internal tensions around the case, Mairead McGuinness, the Irish commissioner, told RTE on Sunday that her attention had not been drawn in advance to the relevant text. The episode “was not good for the European Commission”, she admitted, but said that it was not necessary for Mrs von der Leyen to think about her own position.
There were signs on Sunday that member states would rally to support Ms von der Leyen. She was making “a big effort” to address vaccine shortages, Augusto Santos Silva, Portuguese foreign minister, told the BBC. Broadcasting house Sunday program, adding: “It is very important that we stay united and I think we will”.
The decision to introduce controls on EU vaccine exports was not a question of restrictions, but of transparency, he said. “It’s a question of fair distribution.”
Mrs von der Leyen enjoys the support of powerful countries like Germany and France and she can count on a coalition of support in the European Parliament. Member States are deeply involved in the vaccine strategy overseen by the Commission, which means that any criticism of Brussels can also be seen as a repudiation of their own actions.
“It’s not about ‘Europe first’, but Europe’s fair share,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn told Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagstzeitung, defending the committee’s position . He added that this was the reason why the EU needed to monitor vaccine imports and exports.
A Commission insider said some politicians in Member States’ sometimes’ forget ‘their collective responsibility and may be tempted to blame Brussels. But the insider also admitted that the Commission had let itself be criticized after touting its leadership role in vaccine strategy.
“Obviously, we did not shower ourselves with glory on Friday, and there is a risk of over-selling our role,” said the official. “We are all in the same boat.”
Additional reporting by Peter Wise in Lisbon and Olaf Storbeck in Frankfurt