The Brief, powered by Facebook – Von der Leyen’s worst week

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter. [EPA-EFE/FRANCISCO SECO]

The European Commission is under tremendous pressure. It is struggling to make sure that companies that produce vaccines, for which it has paid €2.7 billion in advance and with which it has signed contracts, stop sending their vaccines elsewhere, harming the interests of the Europeans.

There is enough evidence that vaccine-producing companies are tempted to sell to countries willing to pay more and asking for fewer guarantees, for example in terms of possible side-effects.

In particular, member states, including the two heavyweights, Germany and France, find it unacceptable that their vaccination campaigns are stalled due to a lack of vaccines, whereas the UK, which officially left the EU a month ago, is experiencing no shortages. This is even more unacceptable given that some of the vaccines are produced on EU territory.

This is how the Commission came out with an export authorisation scheme which clearly had Britain in mind.

On Friday evening (29 January), the EU announced it would trigger a clause in the Brexit deal (Article 16) and introduce export controls on its vaccines entering Northern Ireland, in a bid to prevent the province, part of the United Kingdom, from becoming a backdoor for jabs to be sent to the UK mainland.

Hours later, condemnation came from London and Belfast, and also EU member Ireland, and the Commission was forced to remove Article 16 from its export control scheme.

The Commission has managed the unique feat of uniting all political parties and newspapers in the UK against it, but pro-Brexit UK tabloids were particularly and predictably triumphant.

“Ursula von der Leyen urged to QUIT over EU vaccine crisis – ‘She is truly incompetent!’”, screamed a headline in the Express. The tabloid wrote that according to a poll it had organised, 94% of respondents thought she should resign while just 6% thought she should keep her job.

The title is actually made up of a comment by one of the readers, in the comments section under the poll. In terms of calls for her resignation, the paper quotes the “co-leader of Germany’s biggest opposition party”. It does not mention, however, that Jörg Meuthen is from the Alternative for Germany party, the far-right anti-EU force.

For the readers of UK tabloids, it may well look like both Ursula and the EU are finished, though the Express ceased being a serious newspaper of record some years ago.

“The EU is set to crumble in the same way as the Soviet Union did, as countries opt out of the bloc, according to an expert,” says another article from the Express. The expert is Robert Oulds, director of the Bruges Group a virulently Eurosceptic think tank.

Yes, the Commission made a mistake, and yes, it has backtracked. Yes, the damage control wasn’t great, judging by the Commission’s latest midday briefing, where one of the journalists asked if this was von der Leyen’s worst week.

But the EU executive is right to press for the respect of contracts signed and to fight for the interests of European citizens. And no, von der Leyen is not resigning. This is out of the question, she has a very important job to do.

In countries like France, Germany or Belgium, there are no calls for von der Leyen’s resignation, and Article 16 is not mentioned. Besides, who really cares about the propaganda published by a Eurosceptic tabloid in a country that is no longer in the EU, right?

I have seen stories with anti-EU bias in Russia, but clearly, and sadly, UK tabloids are more hostile and their journalistic quality is lower. But they cannot be simply dismissed: UK press stories have the advantage of getting across all over the world.

The EU has a service monitoring fake news coming from Russia. Maybe it should expand it to cover the UK as well. It is a third country, after all.

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The Roundup

AstraZeneca will increase its vaccine deliveries to the EU by 30%, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said as the bloc sought to claw back time lost rolling out the jabs.

There can be no return to business as usual after the pandemic and no amount of economic pressure should force us to compromise on people’s health and the health of our planet, Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius said in an interview about the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and young people’s demands for a greener future.

The EU must step up its military and security assistance for Mozambique as the southeast African country struggles to cope with a growing threat of jihadist insurgency, Portugal’s foreign minister, Augusto Santos Silva, has told EURACTIV.

Britain said it is to apply to join a massive 11-nation free-trade bloc of Asia-Pacific countries this week, not long after quitting the EU’s single market.

The European Commission needs to have further discussions with Beijing and other trading partners about its upcoming carbon border levy, a senior Chinese diplomat said.

Look out for…

  • EU competition ministers meet

Views are the author’s

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Benjamin Fox]

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