Von Der Leyen Blames EU Trade Chief for Vaccine Export Gaffe

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen sought to deflect the blame for a humiliating U-turn over vaccine export controls, saying that one of her deputies had been responsible for the controversial regulation.

The commission sparked outrage in the U.K. and Ireland on Friday when it released proposals for controls on shipments of vaccines from the EU into Northern Ireland, undermining its own commitment during Brexit negotiations to keeping the Irish border open. The plan was abruptly dropped hours later.

“What I can tell you is that there is one cabinet which was lead on this, that is Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis because he is in charge of trade,” the commission’s chief spokesman Eric Mamer told reporters in Brussels on Monday. “This regulation falls under the responsibility of Mr. Dombrovskis and his cabinet and of course the services of the commission which respond to him.”

Von Der Leyen Blames EU Trade Chief for Vaccine Export Gaffe

Von der Leyen has come under heavy fire over the hasty adoption of measures that oblige drug companies to obtain authorization before they can send shots manufactured in the EU to other countries and officials have been speculating on who might be made the scapegoat.

The initial plan included an option for the EU to invoke an emergency clause in the Brexit deal that could introduce restrictions between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, a prospect that was met with dismay in Dublin, London and Belfast.

Shortly after the announcement of the mechanism, von der Leyen performed a late-night U-turn to strip out that part of the plan. It was the latest in a series of communication and policy setbacks for von der Leyen as she struggles to fix the slow and at times chaotic rollout of the EU’s vaccination program.

Who Led?

Dombrovskis himself had publicly stated there was no plan for curbs on vaccine exports just two days before the commission released its proposals. The trade chief was then wheeled out to present the new regulations on Friday, before several elements, including its decision-making clauses, were properly fully firmed up.

When asked to respond to Mamer, Dombrovskis made clear that the EU’s trade services acted “at the request of -- and with inputs from -- relevant Cabinets and services at the Commission to address those public health considerations.”

“This transparency and authorization mechanism for vaccines was created in response to the public health emergency in the EU, to provide greater transparency over vaccine supplies,” he said in an emailed comment.

Dombrovskis is no stranger to being asked to step in during testy times for the EU. In August, he was handed the bloc’s trade portfolio, replacing Irishman Phil Hogan, who quit after breaching coronavirus rules. And back in 2016 Dombrovskis was put in charge of financial services after the Brexit vote led the British commissioner in charge of the file to step down.

AstraZeneca triggered a crisis Jan. 22 when it said that problems at a plant in Belgium meant deliveries to the EU this quarter would be significantly curtailed. As a result, the bloc, which came under fire due to the slow rollout of national vaccination programs, said it would begin restricting the export of vaccines if drugmakers fail to meet delivery targets.

Divided Commission

As tensions grew during the past week between the company and the EU’s leadership, von der Leyen decided that the commission needed to flex its muscle and the focus shifted to a tougher regime that would oblige companies with contracts to supply the EU not just to notify, but to obtain permission before exporting doses outside the bloc.

Still, EU commissioners, who normally take decisions collectively, were deeply divided on whether to adopt it. Ultimately, the decision to go for a stronger approach was taken by von der Leyen and her cabinet.

The episode highlights the pressure the EU’s leadership has come under under, amid delays that could derail plans to exit recession-inducing lockdowns and a widening backlash against governments over prolonged stay-at-home orders. So far, the bloc’s 27 governments have administered just 2.8 doses of vaccine per 100 people, far behind the 14.2 doses in the U.K. and 9.7 in the U.S.

The episode has devolved into a bruising blame game that has pitted the 27-nation EU against the heft of the pharmaceutical industry, and has prompted fears that a wave of vaccine nationalism could hinder efforts to fight the pandemic.

Still, there haven’t been any calls for von der Leyen or other officials to take further responsibility on the errors made concerning the export control plan, and in any case it’s unusual for EU commissioners to step aside. The most striking case was in 1999 when the whole European Commission under Jacques Santer resigned because of a scandal involving France’s appointee, Edith Cresson.

In an interview with broadcaster RTE, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said he retains confidence in Von der Leyen.

“To her credit, she acted to fix the mistake as quickly as she could,” he said.

He said the “very careless” error stemmed from a small circle of people seeking a technical solution to the vaccine export issue, without enough thought to political consequences.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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