Vaccine row: Ursula von der Leyen says EU was ‘too confident’
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The Commission President was forced to apologise, more than once, after she engaged in a bitter contractual row with the Oxford vaccine producer AstraZeneca. The row escalated when Mrs von der Leyen threatened the UK with vaccine export bans against Northern Ireland by triggering Article 16 of the Brexit protocol. The move was swiftly retracted and the contracts with AstraZeneca were published after MEPs demanded clarity from the EU chief.
But the damage had been done.
To top the controversy off, EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell faced an avalanche of criticism after his trip to Russia.
MEPs claimed the EU chief had failed to push back against his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov over the recent jailing of Alexei Navalny, an outspoken critic of the Kremlin.
Speaking to CNN, Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld said the series of mistakes have undermined the entire EU.
She said: “The arrogance of power is paralysing.
“This Commission behaves like a government and works with governments of member states, while the Parliament fails to hold them to account.
“The fact Borrell and von der Leyen got away with these errors undermines the whole EU.”
Poland’s President Andrzej Duda also criticised Mr Borrel, warning the EU chief should have demanded the immediate release of Navalny.
He said: “Mr Borrell should have demanded that Mr Navalny be released and that political harassment be stopped.
“This goal has not been achieved at all and I would go further and ask a basic question: what was the purpose of this visit in this case and what did it bring not only to Mr Borrell but above all to the European Community?
“And I am counting on the fact that these questions will soon be answered.”
But they were not.
MEPs across all sides of the political spectrum called on both Mr Borrell and Mrs von der Leyen to resign immediately.
The Commission chief delivered a humiliating apology before the European Parliament on Tuesday admitting to her failures.
But Mrs von der Leyen tried to explain away the botched process on technical grounds.
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She said: “There is not a compromise we can make when it comes to injecting people with biologically active substances into an individual with good health.
“And that’s the reason why we rely on the European Medicines Agency procedure.
“And yes, that means that the approval takes from three to four weeks more.”
The following day, her mea culpa did not prove to be sufficient to squash criticism from French politicians who promptly took to Twitter to attack the EU chief.
Jerome Riviere MEP said: “The people of Europe will not forget the total failure of this EU and its dramatic handling of the health crisis.”
Echoing Mr Riviere’s comment, MEP Manon Aubry wrote: “The EU strategy on vaccines is a real fiasco; we are capable of imposing restrictions on all citizens, but not rules for big pharmaceutical companies.”
National Rally MEP Nicolas Bay added: “All countries that have ordered vaccines outside the EU are doing better. The European Union is failing.”
Mrs von der Leyen, who has also spoken at five groupings of MEPs over the past weeks, said 26 million vaccine doses had been delivered and that, by the end of the summer, 70 percent of adults in the 27-nation bloc should have been inoculated.
She told Parliament: “And yet it is a fact that we are not today where we want to be in the fight against the virus.
“We were late with the approval. We were too optimistic on mass production.
“And perhaps we were also too certain that the orders would actually be delivered on time.”
Mrs von der Leyen said mistakes were also made leading up to the decision on export curbs.
“I deeply regret that,” she said, adding that the Commission would do its utmost to protect peace in Northern Ireland.
Avoiding a border between EU member Ireland and British-ruled Northern Ireland is seen as key to protecting the peace process there.
However, Mrs von der Leyen defended the Commission’s oversight and added that “in the end, we got it right”.
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