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Can Ursula von der Leyen recover from vaccines debacle?

EUROPE'S FALL GUY: Ursula von der Leyen arrives for an EU summit on Covid in July 2020 - Credit: Getty Images

The European Commission president has floundered over Covid. But is it a sign of deeper problems within the Union?

Perhaps it is because they are blond(e)s. That can be the only reason why Ursula von der Leyen has been compared to Boris Johnson.

Yes, their fathers had jobs at the European Commission, and they spent part of their youths in Brussels, but other than that the commentators were clutching at straws when likening the coiffed European Commission president to a dishevelled British prime minister whom she hosted, at an ostentatious social distance last December when Brexit was reaching its bathos moment.

If a resemblance to a British leader must be drawn, it would rather be to David Cameron. Both hail from privilege; both exude a sense of entitlement; both rely on a chumocracy. Both probably have no idea what they wanted to do with the top job, beyond, to coin a Cameron phrase, they thought they would be rather good at it.

Cameron was destroyed by his own hubris, stumbling into an EU referendum in 2016 which he blithely assumed he would win. Will von der Leyen suffer a similar fate over the vaccine crisis, a debacle characterised by complacency and a certain arrogance?

She is unlikely to go any time soon. Equally, it will take a long time, if ever, for her to regain authority around the world and confidence among member states.

Unlike Cameron, von der Leyen has Brussels in her blood. Ernst Albrecht, her father, rose up the Euro-ladder to become director general for competition, before moving back to Germany where he pursued a career in regional politics. He became premier of Lower Saxony in 1976, a position he held until 1990 (he lost re-election that year to Gerhard Schröder, who would go on to become German chancellor).

It was not uncommon in the childhood home for top politicians and other figures in the establishment to pop by for Kaffee und Kuchen.

Ursula von der Leyen (née Albrecht), with her parents Ernst – prime minister of Lower Saxony – and Heidi-Adele, in 1978 – Credit: ullstein bild via Getty Images

Born in 1958, Ursula went to the European School in Brussels where she became fluent in French and English. In the late 1970s Germany was in turmoil, with leading figures – and their families – targeted by the Red Army Faction. She was whisked off to the London School of Economics where she was given discreet security from Scotland Yard; she was registered there under the name of her great grandmother, the scion of slave-owning plantation owners from South Carolina.

On her return to Germany she switched to medicine, specialising in gynaecology at Hannover medical school. There she met her husband, Heiko, who hails from a similarly well-heeled family. He is now an entrepreneur in stem-cell technology. Their relationship is not dissimilar to that between chemist Angela Merkel and her second husband Joachim Sauer. He keeps in the background.

During a brief stint in Lower Saxony, von der Leyen became known to the rising star, Merkel. Both stood out. Merkel was everything a CDU leader should not be – a Protestant, scientist, divorcee and a woman. The hierarchy did not take her seriously.

Helmut Kohl called her “the girl”. Merkel’s appointment of von der Leyen to her first cabinet, as minister for family, seniors, women and youth, was a clear marker. By that time, von der Leyen had seven children. Influenced by a stint at Stanford University, her husband became main homemaker, something almost unheard of in Germany. Although it must be said they were not short of domestic help.

Von der Leyen raised the number of nursery places and introduced paternity leave. Her second job, minister for labour and social affairs bolstered her popularity further, at least in parts of the population. Traditionalists saw her as aloof and with suspect liberal views, such as voting for same-sex marriage.

After her third election victory in 2013, Merkel needed someone to shake up the armed forces. As (the first female) defence minister, von der Leyen brought in a trusted team, while spending hundreds of millions of euros on private consultants from Accenture and McKinsey. Among friends and foes alike, her stewardship of the ministry was regarded as a failure. A parliamentary committee has since looked into how lucrative contracts from the ministry were awarded to outside consultants without proper oversight, and whether a network of informal personal connections facilitated those deals. 

While von der Leyen was cleared of wrongdoing, she acknowledged that mistakes had been made. She then employed a tactic that was to become her trademark. She blamed others.

Scandals dogged her tenure. It emerged that she had copied large parts of her doctorate. A commission ruled that the errors had not been intentional. She survived, just. Any thoughts of succeeding Merkel as leader had, however, gone.

In summer 2019, she received an unexpected break. The EU’s complicated process for electing a Commission president had become deadlocked, with member states unable to agree on either a German, Manfred Weber, or a Dutchman, Frans Timmermans. President Macron had an idea. Von der Leyen had, like him, a view of a more assertive Europe, less dependent on the United States.

Merkel was taken aback at the nomination but quickly agreed. The leading German Social Democrat Martin Schulz was unimpressed. “Von der Leyen is our weakest minister. That’s apparently enough to become Commission president,” he tweeted.

She advocated an ambitious agenda – tackling climate change, promoting democracy and taking control of Europe’s security. One of her earliest tasks was overseeing the UK’s departure from the EU. In reality, though, this process was managed by Michel Barnier. Although von der Leyen invited Johnson to Brussels to help unlock the final elements, she was – deliberately – not closely involved. Nevertheless, with Brexit ‘done’ – even if the job of negotiating a trade deal still lay ahead – the European Commission could otherwise begin to focus on her agenda.

Then the pandemic struck. In their panic, member states shut their borders and hoarded medical equipment. The Schengen process was slammed shut. The Commission had no levers to pull. Eager to show some semblance of cohesion, she raised 7.5bn euros to improve testing, treatment and vaccine discovery efforts worldwide.

Her most significant contribution came in July 2020 when she co-ordinated a 750 billion euros plan to support the poorest EU members. Merkel’s agreement was pivotal. She had always been averse to issuing debt, but she saw in the starkest terms how easy it was for the entire European project to unravel.

Merkel, Macron and others had been clubbing together to draw up vaccine contracts. At the last moment they agreed to throw in their lot behind the Commission. Solidarity became the watchword. The rest is by now familiar history: a bureaucracy ill-equipped to deal with complex negotiations with big pharma, furious member states and voters who didn’t know who to blame, so ended up blaming all of them.

As the UK, US, Israel and others roared ahead in early 2021, Europe was left floundering. The British speedboat, as she termed it herself, was doing embarrassingly better than the EU tanker.

Cocooned by a small group of advisers, von der Leyen made a series of catastrophic errors. Her decision to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol was manna from heaven to Brexiteers, providing open season for Boris Johnson’s government to undermine the Brexit agreement on a whim. She gave her commissioners a mere 30 minutes notice via email on a Friday night while failing to consult the Irish on both sides of the border. She performed a hasty U-turn, but once again blamed others.

Her recent attempts to impose an export ban on vaccines did not go down well with member states. Again, the revised regulation had not been shared with a number of capitals, coming as a fait accompli just 24 hours before an EU summit.

It fell to Jean-Claude Juncker, her predecessor and someone Cameron had tried desperately to prevent getting the job, to rally to von der Leyen’s defence – in a manner of speaking. “These are not failures of the commission. These are failures of the member states in total and so I don’t think that the getting rid of Mrs von der Leyen would be helpful.”

And that’s now the problem. They are damned if they don’t and damned if they do.

There may be a kernel of truth in von der Leyen’s defence, that these have been more systemic than leadership failings. If that is the case, then the Commission needs to acquire far more power, expertise and resource. But, after this debacle who will dare invest further in a bureaucracy that failed to deliver at the greatest moment of need?

Von der Leyen in London

Ursula Albrecht (later von der Leyen) was an undergraduate at the University of Göttingen when her father, Ernst, a prominent politician, decided to send her to study in London. It was the late 1970s and she was considered to be under threat from the far left terrorist group, the Red Army Faction, whose campaign targeting senior German figures and their families was then at its peak.

She enrolled at the LSE in 1978 under the name Rose Ladson. Ladson was her American great grandmother’s surname, and von der Leyen had been known as Röschen — ‘little rose’ — as a child. She rented a flat in Earl’s Court, where she lived with an uncle. A fan of the London punk scene, she was apparently particularly fond of the Buzzcocks. She is said to have spent more time in Soho pubs and Camden record stores than the university library, earning herself a reputation as a girl who “liked to go crazy in discos”. She herself has said: “I lived much more than I studied.”

After six semesters, and with the Baader-Meinhof threat judged eliminated, she returned to Göttingen University, where she met future husband Heiko von der Leyen in the university choir.

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