Europe's Vaccine Disaster Commission President Ursula von der Leyen Seeking to Duck Responsibility

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is trying to get out of the firing line as anger grows over the EU's botched vaccine rollout. It's not the first time in her career that she has sought to evade responsibility.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen: "It's Europe's moment."

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen: "It's Europe's moment."


Hans Lucas / Imago Images

When European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen talks about politics, there is never a shortage of superlatives and grandiloquence. Until recently, that was also true when she was talking about the extremely sensitive issue of vaccines.

In late November, von der Leyen gushed about the contracts the European Union had signed with various producers, saying it meant that Europeans would have "access to the most promising future vaccines under development" against the coronavirus. When it became clear in December that the first people in the EU would be vaccinated soon after Christmas, she even injected a bit of pathos, tweeting "It's Europe's moment." When the vaccinations then began, she wrote of a "touching moment of unity" and a "European success story."

These days, though, von der Leyen is noticeably quieter – a silence that could have to do with the fact that the erstwhile "success story" might ultimately turn out to be the greatest disaster of her entire political career.

Europe is facing a vaccine disaster. Whereas countries like Israel, Britain and the United States. are quickly moving ahead with vaccinations, the EU is reeling from a string of setbacks. First, U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech informed Brussels that it would be delivering far less vaccine than planned in the coming weeks. Then, the company AstraZeneca said it would only be delivering 31 million doses of its vaccine by the end of March instead of the 80 million Europe had been expecting. And again, the Commission was caught completely off guard.

Since then, frustration and anger has been growing across the EU. Europe, one of the most affluent regions in the world, is proving to be unable to quickly protect its citizens from a deadly disease, while other countries are showing how it is done.

And the boss is nowhere to be found.

The louder the criticism has grown, the less has been heard from the erstwhile loquacious Commission president. She has, at times, been like the phantom of Brussels. Requests for comment from the press have been systematically blocked by her communications department and she has essentially gone into hiding. This week, though, at the World Economic Forum, she wasn't able to entirely avoid the issue. "Now, the companies must deliver," she said. In other words, the companies are to blame, not us. Not me.

It is, to put it bluntly, a pattern that has occurred frequently throughout her career.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 05/2021 (January 30, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

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Whenever von der Leyen, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDIU), has taken on a new leadership position, she has never just been the new minister. She has always acted as though she would do everything different – better – than her predecessor. It has frequently sounded as though von der Leyen planned to reinvent whatever department or ministry she had just assumed control of, making it more functional and more glamorous at the same time. But by the time it became necessary to dive into the sordid details, she had usually moved on.

Posing as the Mother of the Nation

When von der Leyen was appointed family minister in 2005, she introduced a generous federally funded program for parental leave and expanded daycare offerings, essentially revolutionizing her party's family-policy image in the process. But when it came to addressing the difficulties associated with opening a huge number of new daycare facilities – that was left to her successor.

When she became minister of labor and social affairs in 2009, she promised a hot lunch for every child. The result, though, was a confusing collection of regulations. "Ursula von der Leyen was excellent at posing as the mother of the nation and launching illusory programs for the poor," says Ulrich Schneider, head of the federation of German welfare associations.

AstraZeneca head Pascal Soriot in 2014

AstraZeneca head Pascal Soriot in 2014

Foto: Facundo Arrizabalaga / epa-efe / Shutterstock

And at the Defense Ministry? The bureau is still trying to clean up the messes that its former boss left behind.

In each instance, von der Leyen's departure was perfectly timed. Just as the time had come for evaluations, she had already climbed up to the next rung on her career ladder.

Which is why she is now faced with a real problem. First of all, there isn't really anywhere left to go from her current post in Europe's top position. And second, the pandemic has hit the fast-forward button on political developments, with the consequences of political decisions taking mere weeks to manifest themselves instead of several years. "I am absolutely stunned by how negligent Ursula von der Leyen has been in overseeing the start of vaccinations in recent months," says Lars Klingbeil, general secretary of Germany's Social Democrats (SPD).

Indeed, von der Leyen finds herself in an extremely difficult situation. The next several weeks could decide her political future.

On Tuesday of this week, she delivered a video address to the World Economic Forum, where she spoke about Donald Trump, the storming of the Capitol and the question as to whether democracy has been damaged in the last four years. She spoke about climate change, biodiversity, artificial intelligence and digitalization.

In the first several minutes of her talk, she only briefly mentioned the coronavirus pandemic, and it was fully 15 minutes before she even said the word "vaccine." Only to say things like: "We know that in a pandemic there is no time to lose."

Bazaar Bargaining

Initially, of course, things looked quite good on the vaccine front. Back in summer, nobody was willing to predict that the first vaccine would be approved in the EU as early as December and that vaccinations would begin. Nor that a second vaccine would quickly follow in January. Von der Leyen was also able to claim a significant success when the EU agreed on a joint vaccination strategy in June, despite the fact that the bloc's 27 member states had always defended sovereignty when it came to health care policy. For the Commission president, it represented a gain of both prestige and power. Fleetingly, at least.

The problems began soon thereafter. Negotiations with vaccine producers bogged down, and it wasn't until November that the EU was able to reach a purchase agreement with BioNTech/Pfizer and with Moderna, the manufacturers of the two most successful vaccines thus far introduced. The EU negotiating team, according to people familiar with the talks, was intent on pushing down the price. There was also allegedly an extended disagreement on liability issues, particularly with Pfizer.

While others simply acted with expedience and placed huge orders, the EU – right in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century – decided to bargain like they were at the bazaar. Von der Leyen, of course, didn't lead these negotiations personally. But she is the boss, and carries the political responsibility.

After a year of the pandemic, hundreds of millions of Europeans are tired, frustrated and desperate for an appointment to finally get vaccinated. No other issue is as important at the moment – for the economy, for society and for politics. And the time will come to assign blame for the missteps that have been made. The search for where to place that blame won't start down below among the army of EU bureaucrats. It will start at the top.

Given that truth, von der Leyen's press department has been energetic in its defense of the Commissions actions. After all, the EU has secured rights to 2.3 billion doses of vaccine, they have pointed out, with 760 million of them from BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna.

But what use is that when the availability of the vaccine will remain so limited for the foreseeable future? When the producers are unable to deliver what they have agreed to – or can only deliver much later?

And what, actually, is in those contracts, which have thus far remained confidential? Are the deliveries promised by the producers legally binding? Or did the Commission agree to flimsy fine print such that it has no leverage against the producers?

Thus far, only the contract with the German company Curevac has been made public. It says that the producer will make "reasonable best efforts" to deliver the agreed upon number of doses within the negotiated time frame. Pascal Soriot, the head of AstraZeneca, is now claiming the same thing. The Curevac contract also says that the producer must inform purchasers as quickly as possible of possible delays, explain the causes for those delays and present a revised timeline for delivery. That, though, is all.

Should the AstraZeneca contract contain the same language, it would be politically explosive. Tiemo Wölken, a member of European Parliament with Germany's Social Democrats, believes the contract is similar in that regard. "The wording of the delivery requirement for Curevac is supposedly similar," he says. "As such, what Soriot is saying doesn't sound implausible."

That would be a huge embarrassment for von der Leyen, but it would come as welcome news for a man who isn't yet out of the firing line himself: German Health Minister Jens Spahn. At home, Spahn has been the subject of scathing critique for the flubbed beginning of the vaccination campaign. Spahn, who just recently warned the country that "10 difficult weeks" were still to come, is now able to deflect some of the criticism to Brussels – onto the shoulders of fellow CDU member Ursula von der Leyen.

Moving Too Slowly

There is a history to their vaccine-related relationship. In mid-June, Spahn pushed ahead with his counterparts from France, the Netherlands and Italy, reaching an initial agreement with AstraZeneca. They planned to share the order with all EU member states. But that's not how things worked out.

Several countries intervened, the Chancellery in Berlin got involved and, in late June, Spahn and the others handed over responsibility for the negotiations to the European Commission. Thereafter, say people involved in the process, the Germans felt like they were "driving donkeys." In other words: Things were moving too slowly for Berlin, far too slowly.

It took the Commission until the end of August to forge an agreement with AstraZeneca on the delivery of up to 400 million vaccine doses – way too long, believes Spahn's Health Ministry in Berlin. And they feel justified in their dissatisfaction, particularly when they look across the English Channel, where the freshly Brexited UK is doing quite well with its vaccination program, having placed its order three months earlier.

The talks with Pfizer/BioNTech took even longer. Spahn even grabbed for the phone himself, likely knowing full well that he would ultimately have to bear some of the responsibility if sufficient quantities of the vaccine weren't available. He is almost as well-versed in the art of political self-defense as von der Leyen.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn

German Health Minister Jens Spahn

Foto: Maja Hitij / Getty Images

The Commission president's team precisely registered the criticism coming from Berlin and emphasized that the German government had been kept abreast of the vaccine negotiations, noting that a senior official from Spahn's ministry is on the European Commission's Scientific Steering Committee.

Furthermore, say members of von der Leyen's staff, the criticism from the member-state capitals, Berlin included, is rather hypocritical given the wildly divergent approaches to the vaccines from the bloc's 27 member states. Some of them were particularly concerned about costs, while others didn't care how large the bill would be. Some had faith in the new mRNA technology, while others preferred to rely on more time-tested methods. Given such disagreements, the Commission argues, how could things possibly have gone any faster?

Passing Around the Responsibility

Von der Leyen has received backing from Manfred Weber, head of the European People's Party group in the European Parliament and a member of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to von der Leyen's CDU in Germany. "From today's perspective, the biggest mistake was probably that of making just 2.7 billion euros available for the advance orders," he says. "The member states skimped in the wrong place."

It's the standard political story: Responsibility just gets passed around. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who took over the Defense Ministry in Berlin from von der Leyen, is no doubt an interested bystander. She, too, is facing problems in her ministry that she inherited from the Commission president.

The acquisition of new assault rifles for the German military is threatening to turn into a fiasco for Kramp-Karrenbauer, and last fall, she had to suspend a tendering process for the order of badly needed transport helicopters. Furthermore, the special forces KSK unit has recently turned out to be a hotbed of right-wing extremism. Ursula von der Leyen shares at least some of the responsibilities for all of these problems.

She was the one who decided to phase out the G36 assault rifles that soldiers had grown quite fond of. It was under her leadership that the helicopter contract was tendered. And she was the one who banned symbols associated with Germany's Nazi-era military, the Wehrmacht, from the barracks without realizing that the secretive KSK was full of right-wing extremists.

Von der Leyen led the ministry for five-and-a-half years, quite a long time for her. The tenure wasn't particularly good for her image, but it was sufficient to put her in line for a position in Brussels – partly because of a political trick that she has used repeatedly throughout her career to shield herself from unpleasantness.

Immediately after taking over the Defense Ministry, von der Leyen hired McKinsey consultant Katrin Suder as her state secretary for armaments. An overachiever by nature, Suder became a human firewall between the minister and all of the risky armaments projects over which many of her predecessors had stumbled. And Suder played her role to perfection, with von der Leyen mostly escaping harm despite some acquisition failures.

Even the multimillion-euro consultancy contracts that had been signed illegally did no damage to von der Leyen. She launched an internal investigation and meted out punishment to individual Defense Ministry staff members, but ultimately rejected all personal responsibility with the memorable excuse that the mistakes had taken place "far below my level."

What's Next for Von Der Leyen?

When she announced this week that the pharmaceutical companies bore responsibility for the vaccine disaster, there are those in the Defense Ministry who likely felt a sense of déjà vu. But will she get away with it this time, too?

Everything now depends on there being sufficient vaccine available this summer. Von der Leyen's team is valiantly sticking to its goal of vaccinating 70 percent of adults in the EU by the summer. For that to happen, though, AstraZeneca will have to deliver as originally planned, despite there being virtually no evidence that it will.

On Wednesday evening the fourth crisis meeting between the EU and the company ended largely without results, with company head Soriot personally taking part in the meeting even as Commission President von der Leyen chose to keep her distance. Soriot insists that his company did not agree to binding delivery deadlines, instead only committing to "reasonable best efforts."

The European Commission has a different view. Not only did AstraZeneca agree to specific delivery amounts by specific deadlines. It was also determined which factories would produce the vaccine, a Commission expert insists. She isn't willing to accept as an excuse AstraZeneca's claim that one of its facilities has run into problems. The expert points out that the EU committed 336 million euros to the company, and has even paid out some of that, so that the vaccine could be produced at four sites and that it would begin production even before the vaccine was approved for use in Europe. "We never would have signed a contract with just a single factory," the official says.

The array of instruments available to the Commission is limited. A legal battle with the producers would take years to resolve and wouldn't do anything to fix the current shortages. One proposal on the table is an export ban for vaccines, but if the European Commission follows through on the threat, the companies would use all legal means at their disposal to fight it. The final option would be the forced licensing of vaccines.

Would von der Leyen be up for such a public power struggle? And what does it all mean for her and her political future?

She could only be fired if two-thirds of the European Parliament were to approve a vote of no confidence in the Commission. Still, pressure can be ratcheted up to the point that von der Leyen herself takes personal responsibility. And back in Berlin, the SPD, the junior coalition partner to Merkel's CDU, has already opened fire.

"The vaccination program is our path out of the crisis. The boss has to take control of it," says SPD General Secretary Klingbeil. "Given all of the acquisition chaos and the mistakes that have been made, the Commission president can no longer dodge responsibility." Klingbeil says it reminds him "of her leadership style in the Defense Ministry," adding that "instead of closed-door politics and a lack of transparency, we now need clarity from the EU. All the facts and the contracts with vaccine producers must be put on the table." Franziska Brantner, a German parliamentarian with the Green Party, is also demanding that von der Leyen take responsibility for the issue.

Even within von der Leyen's own party, the CDU, uneasiness is growing. Germany has thus far provided 300 million euros for vaccine development, says Mario Voigt, the CDU candidate for governor in Thuringia state elections this fall. "Europe should ensure that companies like Pfizer don't shortchange us."

Essentially, von der Leyen only has one chance left. More vaccine must be made available. And quickly. But this far, AstraZeneca has only said it is prepared "to deliver a bit in February and a bit more in March," says one senior Commission official. "After that, it's darkness."

Update: This article went to print on Thursday night. On Friday, the European Commission and AstraZeneca released a heavily redacted version of their contract.

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