Covid-19: EU unprepared for vaccine production, delivery challenges, says von der Leyen
European Commission president fails to explain why Article 16 of North protocol was cited
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen: We should have thought more about the challenges of mass [vaccine] production. Photograph: EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET / POOL
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has blamed Covid-19 vaccine procurement problems on the EU’s failure to invest swiftly enough in production facilities.
But, in a newspaper interview on Friday, she failed to explain how and why her executive body cited Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol last week, ostensibly to avoid vaccine exports. Brussels abandoned the idea within hours after protest from London and Dublin.
“I carry the full responsibility for all decisions of the commission because I know that I can depend on my college [of commissioners],” she told the Süddeutsche Zeitung and other European newspapers. “The week before we would wouldn’t have been even able to think of partially setting aside the protocol. I regret that. But in the end the college then voted for a good solution.”
Asked why, if the college of commissioners were involved in the decision, Irish commissioner Mairead McGuinness claims she knew nothing of it, the president replied: “Since the start of the pandemic we have made . . . close to 900 emergency decisions like the one you mention. In these emergency procedures the time pressure is always great. I admit that. And it is a never-ending task to communication with all sides.”
Article 16 was cited in an initial version of a regulation introduced last Friday by the commission that created controls on vaccine exports, in a bid to stop Northern Ireland being used as a backdoor for restricted deliveries to Britain.
The article of the Northern Ireland protocol allows for “temporary safeguard measures” to be taken that go against the rules of Northern Ireland’s special arrangements in cases of “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”. It has been a rallying call for opponents of the protocol who present it as a way of overriding Irish Sea checks.
The commission president said the lesson she had learned from the recent difficulties and controversies was to be better prepared for all eventualities.
“In hindsight we should have thought more about the challenges of mass production, build up delivery chains and manufacturing,” Dr von der Leyen said.
She denied she had lost the support of many member state leaders as a result, saying “the vast majority . . . support us strongly”.
After days of bruising commentary from EU capitals, Dr von der Leyen hit back at claims the commission had left member states in the dark. All 27 were involved in the process since June, meeting in a committee five to seven times a month. “Without consensus among the 27, no decision is taken,” she said.
Asked about delays in procuring enough vaccine for the bloc – while countries like the UK, US and Israel power ahead – she said: “If it came to delays, then many factors played a role.”
Some member states blame EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides for being too slow in negotiations with pharmaceutical companies, overtaken by other countries who are now ahead of the EU in the queue.
Dr von der Leyen directed attention to other complicating factors. Israel’s early lead was “impressive”, she said. But securing vaccines came by giving drug companies in exchange “the personal health data of those vaccinated, something the EU would never do”.
That Hungary is now using Chinese and Russian vaccines – not granted permits by the European Medical Agency – was, she said, permissible under national emergency law.
“But as with Great Britain, that brings with it liability for the government,” she said.
Asked whether the commission had built up public expectations, only to dash them, Dr von der Leyen agreed she should have warned more that a bumpy start to vaccination was likely.
“We underestimated how many complicating factors could emerge,” she said. “We should have known more how this new procedure would, initially, be a rollercoaster ride before one reaches a stable process. For that we can be criticised.”
Asked about the vaccine doses the EU can expect to receive in the coming months, she noted that 20 million have already been delivered. Some 33 million and 55 million doses are in line for February and March respectively.
“Conservative estimates will see 300 million doses in the second quarter,” she said. “Administering them all will be a difficult task for which we will have to work together.”
Despite teething problems, she insisted European co-operation on vaccine procurement remained the right thing to do.
“A country can be a speed boat, but the EU is more like a tanker,” she said. “I don’t want to imagine what it would have meant for Europe if one, two, three or four member states got access to vaccines and not others. What that would mean for the internal market. For the unity of the EU. That is inconceivable.”
Dr von der Leyen’s interview is unlikely to satisfy Irish parliamentarians in Brussels who have joined together to demand answers from her on a decision that has destabilised new arrangements for the North.
In an open letter, Fianna Fáil MEPs Billy Kelleher and Barry Andrews joined Sinn Féin’s Christ MacManus and independents Clare Daly, Mick Wallace and Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan to call on the president of the European Parliament to ensure accountability from Dr von der Leyen.
“We need answers from Ursula von der Leyen,” the MEPs added. The commission president is expected to take questions in the European Parliament next week.
“The commission’s triggering of Article 16 has damaged relations on the island of Ireland and undermined the security of its people,” they added in their open letter. “This act was a further and serious blow to the Commission’s credibility, one which points to a wider breakdown in communication between the Commission and democratically elected Member State governments.”