Germany rejects claims it sought triggering of Northern Ireland protocol

Idea Merkel and von der Leyen plotted on vaccines a misreading, Berlin officials say

German government officials have dismissed as “nonsense” claims circulating in Brussels that Berlin floated the idea of triggering article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol.

Sources in Angela Merkel’s administration confirm regular contact over vaccine procurement with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, a former German cabinet minister.

But several key political figures have dismissed the idea, which was floated in Brussels on Thursday, that Germany demanded the commission act as it did on the protocol to help prevent scarce vaccines from leaving the EU.

Germany’s federal health ministry declined to comment on a specific rumour circulating in Brussels that its minister, Jens Spahn, had pressed the commission to activate the Northern Ireland protocol.

“I have the impression von der Leyen’s spin doctors are trying to shift the mistakes made by her commission as far from her as possible,” said one senior government source, when asked about the Spahn rumour.

Another said Berlin was worried about vaccines leaving the bloc, “but the idea that a German health minister would be on top of the details of the Northern Ireland border arrangements is nonsense”.

Dr Merkel administration officials – and political observers – agree that some media coverage of the article 16 fallout has mischaracterised the Merkel-von der Leyen relationship.

‘No real friends’

The European Commission president served as family, labour and, finally, defence minister at the Merkel cabinet table. But the 62 year old left Berlin under a cloud: a parliamentary inquiry critical of her costly approach to armed forces reform.

In public, the German government has defended the commission’s decisions on vaccine procurement – but not the commission president.

In private, Merkel confidantes criticise the pace of Brussels’ decision-making and have little good to say about the German heading the commission.

“You’ll see no one in Berlin lining up to defend von der Leyen personally,” said one government source, “because she has no real friends here.”

Seasoned Berlin political observers dismissed as out-of-character reports the German chancellor and European Commission president were plotting together on vaccines.

Political scientist Josef Janning says the two women have very different characters, and their interaction in Berlin was always a cool relationship of convenience.Dr Merkel was said to be wary of Dr von der Leyen’s political ambition though she was no real threat, he adds: unpopular with voters and with no power base inside the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

‘Wounds’ in wake

“In her Brussels job, von der Leyen is very careful not to appear as Merkel’s lapdog, so it’s oversimplistic to think the chancellor calls her and says, ‘you do this’,” said Mr Janning, a senior associate fellow of the German Council on Foreign Relations. “The greatest stumbling block for Ursula von der Leyen’s career is that, wherever she goes, she leaves behind wounds.”

German finance minister Olaf Scholz is less diplomatic about Dr von der Leyen. The Social Democrat told a meeting with Dr Merkel on Monday that the commission’s procurement programme had “gone shittily”, according to Thursday’s Bild tabloid.

The commission president’s subsequent blame-shifting efforts were, Mr Scholz reportedly said, “the next mess”.

On Monday, Dr Merkel and Germany’s 16 state premiers held a digital “vaccine summit” with leading pharmaceutical representatives.

A day later, Dr Merkel said that, when she asked the drug companies if more money would help them produce more vaccine, “they said ‘no’”.

During a television interview on Tuesday, Dr Merkel said the EU procurement programme was “by and large” a success. It had moved more slowly than the UK, she suggested, because it had not cut corners on vaccine-approval procedures.

German officials say another capacity problem arises from German vaccine developer BioNTech’s choice of production partner: Pfizer, which is obliged by Washington to keep in the US all doses it produces there.