How the vaccine export control blunder exposed von der Leyen’s ‘flawed’ centralism

European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen [EPA-EFE/WALSCHAERTS]

Relevant EU commissioners were not consulted and cabinets had less than 30 minutes for a “quick check” before the EU’s proposed vaccine export control mechanism was presented to journalists last Friday (29 January), EU officials told EURACTIV.

The mistakes made during the adoption of the new instrument to limit the shipping of COVID-19 vaccines outside Europe exposed the “flawed” centralised decision-making process introduced under Ursula von der Leyen’s European Commission, EU officials said.

The botched consultation included provisions on the now-scrapped controversial clause that would have brought back internal border checks on the island of Ireland.

The Commission president’s team was responsible for the last-minute inclusion of Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, said EU officials who spoke to EURACTIV on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

EURACTIV spoke with half a dozen officials who shed light on the steps that had led to the Commission’s embarrassing u-turn on Friday night.

“There’s a lot of unrest inside the Commission because this is not the proper way for taking decisions,” two officials agreed.

The EU executive was forced to amend its export authorisation mechanism, adopted a few hours before, because it invoked Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, a clause with far-reaching political consequences.

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The export authorisation mechanism was designed hastily by the Commission over the last week to control COVID vaccine exports outside EU territory. The mechanism was adopted after AstraZeneca told the EU that it would send only 25% of the doses it had agreed to deliver in the first quarter (around 31 million).

The decision to invoke Article 16 was aimed at avoiding loopholes in the mechanism by controlling the flow of vaccines between Ireland and Northern Ireland. 

This article is a “last-resort clause” that allows the EU or the UK to suspend parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, attached to the Brexit deal precisely to ensure the free passing of goods without checks.

But using Article 16 would have put at risk the peace and security on the island that the EU and the UK fought hard to preserve during the Brexit talks.

The inclusion of this article, however, did not come from the directorate-general for Trade, responsible for the mechanism proposal, and which is headed by Sabine Weyand, who was the deputy of EU chief negotiator for Brexit, Michel Barnier.

Instead, the reference to Article 16 was a “very last-minute addition” from von der Leyen’s team, EU officials told EURACTIV.

The final draft, including article 16, arrived so late that EU Commissioners and their cabinets had not even received it when the EU executive sent an alert to journalists at 15:07 Brussels time on Friday, postponing “at least 15 minutes” a press conference with the Commissioners in charge of the proposal, Valdis Dombrovskis (trade) and Stella Kyriakides (health).

30 minutes

The final draft landed in emails of EU commissioner’s heads of cabinets at 15.21, less than 30 minutes before the press conference started. 

In the email, cabinet chiefs were told to give a “quick check” to the proposal, before launching a written procedure for approval. The written procedure lasted seven minutes, an official said.

Several officials pointed to the lack of time awarded to the cabinet chiefs for reading the controversial proposal. Some of them were reading the text while it was being presented in the press room.

“Everything happened very, very fast,” said one official. 

Speaking to European newspapers early this week, von der Leyen justified the decision by the need to act fast. Almost 900 decisions using emergency procedures had to be taken over the past months to respond to the fallout of the pandemic, she explained.

But the officials consulted for this article argued that important steps in the procedure were circumvented in this case – in particular those that would have flagged the addition of article 16, which was not included in previous versions circulated on Friday morning.

McGuinness not consulted

Moreover, various officials also said it was a “mistake” that relevant commissioners were not consulted on this matter, including Irish Commissioner Mairead McGuinness who was not informed.

“The proposal went into von der Leyen’s cabinet and disappeared in the dark,” one official said.

Several officials wondered what was the role played by von der Leyen’s deputy head of cabinet, Stephanie Riso, who was Barnier’s special advisor in the past.

While one official said she was “deeply involved” in the drafting of the mechanism, another one said she had advised against the inclusion of Article 16.

The Commission’s chief spokesperson, Eric Mamer, did not want to comment on how the approval process went and who was involved in the drafting of the mechanism.

It is part of the Commission’s “internal cuisine,” he told EURACTIV.

But officials said that the “big mistake” made with article 16 illustrated the “flaws” and “risks” of the centralised decision-making process under von der Leyen’s Commission. 

“Lessons learnt”?

According to officials, the Commission President relies heavily on a small number of trusted aides, especially her head of cabinet, Björn Seibert, and her communications advisor Jens Flosdorff, who both came with her from Berlin when she was appointed to the job in late 2019.

Some officials even wondered about her future after this mistake, saying a lot will now depend on how the vaccine roll-out evolves.

“We have certainly learned from last Friday’s events that we need to redouble our efforts and caution when we are working at speed,” von der Leyen told The Irish Times.

Another official affirmed that “there will be lessons learnt,” given the far-reaching political impact of the decision that forced the European Commission into reverse gear.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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