by Frank Schnittger
Sat Mar 27th, 2021 at 10:42:55 AM EST
The vaccine roll-out has been a bit of a disaster for the EU, so obviously somebody has to be at fault. In the infantile world of much modern politics it's all about finding a scapegoat and it looks like the Irish government has decided that Ursula Von Der Leyen would be a good candidate for the role. Former UK Conservative party Leader and Brexiteer, William Hague, has described Ursula von der Leyen's time as president of the European Commission as "among the most dismal in its existence" and he clearly has the EU's best interests at heart. I have drafted a letter to the editor as follows:
Stephen Collins is usually a good weathervane of Irish establishment thinking, so it was interesting to read his comments on Ursula Von Der Leyen in (Doubts grow over Von der Leyen's stewardship, Opinion, 26th. March).
In assessing her performance to date, we should bear in mind that the member states only gave the Commission a mandate to negotiate vaccine contracts on their behalf last June, long after Trump's Warp speed initiative and the UK's vaccine procurement efforts had begun. They did so to avoid the chaos of the earlier Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) procurement fiasco which had member states competing against each other for scarce supplies.
Some member states were also wary of the Commission awarding contracts to vaccine producers in other member states and others were very concerned at the potential cost and legal liability issues should unwanted side effects manifest themselves at a later stage.
We must remember that no vaccine had been approved for use at this stage and there was considerable uncertainty as to which vaccine candidates would prove efficacious and safe.
As the Commission has only very limited competency in health care matters and no previous experience of vaccine procurement (or emergency response preparation, for that matter) Von Der Leyen put an experienced trade negotiator in charge of the procurement negotiations. Trade negotiations typically take years to complete, proceed at a glacial pace, and require unanimity among the member states to conclude.
In the circumstances, it was remarkable that the Commission concluded an extensive range of vaccine procurement contracts within a few months of being given a mandate to do so. They did so in legally binding agreements including "best efforts" clauses common in such agreements and similar to those contracts negotiated by the UK.
Indeed, according to a CNN report citing various legal authorities who had seen redacted versions of both the EU and UK contracts, the EU contract is virtually identical to the UK Astra Zeneca contract which was actually signed the day after the EU one.
We may never know what behind the scenes deals were made by the UK to persuade Astra Zeneca to prioritise UK supplies as UK government spokes people always demur citing "national security" considerations when asked that question, and the US government has invoked the Defence Production Act to restrict the export of vaccines.
Whatever the mechanism, it is clear that sovereign states like the US and UK adopted an America first and Britain first approach to vaccine procurement while criticising the EU for "vaccine nationalism" even though the EU has exported more vaccine doses than it has given to its own citizens.
The moral of the story is that the EU brought a knife to a gunfight, but as this week's meeting of the EU Council showed, it is doubtful the member states would have given the Commission a more robust mandate to secure priority vaccine supplies for their own citizens. Several member states, including Ireland, opposed the Commission's proposal to institute vaccine export controls, citing concerns it could undermine the supply of raw materials for vaccine production in the EU.
Only time will tell whether these concerns are overdone, and whether the EU could have done more to prioritise vaccines for its own citizens, especially when many of those vaccines have gone to Israel and the UK which are far more advanced in vaccinating their general populations, and not just those most at risk.
But it seems clear that the primary fault lies not with Van der Leyen, but with a general EU reluctance to undermine international trading rules even as their own citizens are dying in increasing numbers.
The Commission may not have been well prepared to conduct its first ever pharmaceutical procurement negotiations, and even less prepared for an emergency response role, but if that is to become an ongoing role for the Commission, it needs to be given a clearer and more timely mandate to develop those capabilities.
Focusing on the personal qualities of Von Der Leyen is a case of national governments seeking to avoid responsibility for what can at best, be euphemistically described as a "learning Experience", and at worst, a disaster for all of us.
Making a scapegoat out of Von der Leyen may suit the agendas of some national governments, but it does nothing for the future of the Union.
It is most unlikely that my letter will be published, as it is much too long for the tastes of most editors. But I felt we should avoid the easy option of heaping all blame on Van Der Leyen when there are clearly deeper structural issues at play. The Commission has never before been given such an extensive role in health care and pharmaceutical procurement, or indeed crises management in general. If national governments want to off-load some of those responsibilities onto the Commission, they have to give it a formal mandate to do so and time to develop the capabilities and accountabilities required.
The UK, and (to a slightly lesser extent) the Irish media like to play blame games and the hunt for a suitable resignation candidate is on. The UK has been playing the game of pushing all blame onto the EU even for policy initiatives entirely within its own competency for years, and has now reaped the almost inevitable consequences. We must be careful of falling into the same trap.
I am also deeply allergic to taking lessons in democratic accountability from unelected Tory Lords. Ursula Von Der Leyen may be few people's personification of an ideal leader for the EU, but the issues here go far beyond her personal qualities and accountabilities.