The EU’s top leadership has got off to a bad start in 2021. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen carries only a small share of responsibility for EU member-states’ slow progress in vaccinating their populations against COVID-19, but her attempts to blame others have not gone down well. Moreover, the Commission’s panicked attempt to close Ireland’s border with Northern Ireland to prevent the export of vaccines to the UK has reignited tensions with Britain over the Northern Ireland Protocol of the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement. Meanwhile, the politically risky visit to Moscow by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HRVP) Josep Borrell was widely described as humiliating: the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, accused EU leaders of lying about the poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny and described the EU as an unreliable partner – while Borrell stood silently next to him at a press conference. The Russians underlined their contempt for Borrell by declaring three EU member-state diplomats personae non gratae while he was meeting Lavrov.
But if member-states’ governments are wondering who appointed such unsuitable people to such important positions, they do not have far to look. After three days of intense negotiations in the European Council in the summer of 2019, both Brussels-watchers and the nominees themselves were surprised by the names put forward for the EU’s top jobs: German defence minister von der Leyen for Commission President; former Belgian prime minister Charles Michel as European Council President; Spanish foreign minister Borrell as HRVP; and (the least surprising) Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde as President of the European Central Bank. None of the EU’s new leaders were first choices – with the exception of Lagarde. This had little to do with their seniority and experience, and everything to do with the ever-complex world of EU politics, where consensus, institutional turf wars and quotas often trump political strategy. The combination of factors that have to be considered make choosing the right candidates for the job difficult at the best of times; at worst, it weakens the EU both internally, by pitching governments against the Brussels institutions, and externally, by failing to show a coherent front to the world. The current problems with the EU leadership are a direct result of the inability (or unwillingness) of European governments to agree on a team that had a clear and strong vision for Europe.
The appointments came about because of the interaction between the results of elections to the European Parliament in May 2019 and the Spitzenkandidaten process, whereby the nominee of the largest political grouping in the incoming Parliament is supposed to become Commission President. With EPP‘s Spitzenkandidat, Manfred Weber, and Frans Timmermans, a former Dutch foreign minister and Vice President of Juncker’s Commission, opposed by many, European leaders rushed to find a compromise candidate. Von der Leyen, a francophone German conservative, was acceptable to both Germany and France, and also to the EPP from whose ranks she was drafted, and to the Visegrad countries. Her appointment created a domino effect: with the Commission going to a German conservative, Southern socialists and the liberals needed top jobs, too. Enter Borrell and Michel. But it was never going to be easy for von der Leyen, Borrell and Michel to steer a hesitant EU through growing tensions between China and the US; to deal with Britain’s exit from the bloc; or to stop democratic backsliding inside the Union, to cite three of the many challenges the EU faces. The coronavirus pandemic threw an extra complication into the mix.
Unlike the Commission presidency, Borrell and Michel’s positions are theirs to shape and the degree to which they are influential depends largely on who fills them. For now, Michel has kept rather quiet. He did not try to position himself as a broker between the EU and the UK, even as Britain left the EU; nor has he had any major role in pandemic management and communication. Meanwhile, Von der Leyen and Borrell are having a more torrid time than Michel. Von der Leyen’s leadership style is different from the bonhomie of her predecessor, Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker. Unlike him, she is not a veteran of EU politics. She relies on a tight-knit circle of advisers, many of whom are unfamiliar with Brussel’s palace intrigues themselves – perhaps because they came directly from her Berlin ministerial office. Moreover, she is also having to work with the most divided European Parliament in EU history. This has made von der Leyen’s job tricky, as she cannot push laws through a parliament that disagrees with her.
Despite the obstacles, von der Leyen has spearheaded two of the Union’s most ambitious projects to date: the EU’s post-pandemic recovery fund; and the bloc’s joint vaccine procurement. The former was a good example of von der Leyen’s way of doing things, with hurried communiqués and last-minute decisions, but it paid off in the end. For the first time the EU agreed on a common fiscal response to an economic shock, creating a recovery fund endowed with money borrowed from financial markets. Joint vaccine procurement, however, has been less successful. The vaccination roll-out has been slow and plagued with problems. EU governments outsourced vaccine purchases to the Commission in the hope of avoiding disparities in vaccination rates between member states. However, the Commission‘s plan had gaps, in particular a lack of enforcement mechanisms in case pharmaceutical companies did not deliver on their promises. And initial problems in manufacturing chains led to delays and vaccine shortages. As a result, EU countries have made little progress in vaccinating their citizens. Von der Leyen failed at first to acknowledge and then explain the terms of the Commission’s deals with vaccine producers and why these might result in shortages. Astonishingly, she also tried to blame the EU’s trade officials for the fracas. She later apologised but the damage was done.
The EU’s vaccination problems caused collateral damage, when EU officials publicly accused the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca of delivering vaccines earmarked for the EU to Britain first, helping the UK’s successful vaccination campaign at the expense of the EU. The Commission then announced that it would trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to the UK Withdrawal Agreement, imposing export controls on vaccines moving from the EU to Northern Ireland. Facing criticism from both the UK and Irish governments, the Commission quickly backed down; but the incident exposed the shortcomings of von der Leyen’s decision-making process, in which no-one with an understanding of the sensitive Irish border issue had been consulted. Von der Leyen has emerged badly bruised from the vaccine showdown. While there are things she could not control, her managerial style has angered national capitals and her own team alike.
Borrell, notably opinionated, is possibly in the most uncomfortable position of the EU’s leaders. By labelling her team ‘the geopolitical Commission’, and creating units in charge of dossiers with significant foreign policy implications (like a new department for digital matters), von der Leyen made it clear who the boss of the bloc’s foreign policy was going to be. Clue: not Borrell. This may, in part, help explain Borrell’s shambolic visit to Moscow on 5 February. It was a badly timed trip – Navalny had just been jailed on returning from Berlin, where he was treated for poisoning carried out by Russian security agencies. Borrell seemed ill-prepared for Lavrov’s predictable claims that any problems in the EU-Russia relationship were the fault of the European side. There was a stark contrast between Borrell’s passivity and the willingness of the Finnish foreign minister, Pekka Haavisto, to contradict Lavrov when speaking to the media after their meeting in St Petersburg on 15 February.
EU governments are upset about the way von der Leyen has managed the vaccine fiasco. Some are livid at Borrell’s seemingly free-standing diplomacy. But they are simply getting what they paid for. In patching together a leadership team with no clear common plan or direction, leaders were setting themselves up for failure. Von der Leyen and Borrell should learn from their mistakes. The Commission president should be more open to outsider opinions and make better use of seasoned EU staff. Borrell, for his part, needs to have a better understanding of those that wish the EU ill – first, by recognising that they exist. But none of this will matter if member states do not pull their weight by providing the EU leadership with the necessary support to shore them up in areas where they are weak. Ultimately, EU governments should be more strategic the next time they appoint their leaders.
‘The EU’s Troubled Leadership: You Get What You Pay For’ – Commentary by Camino Mortera-Martinez – Centre for European Reform / CER.