The EU’s Ship of Fools, Installment Two: The Financial Times Weighs In

Further to my latest essay excoriating the heads of the EU Institutions for mismanaging the 27 country-wide vaccination program to combat Covid-19, The Financial Times has weighed in today with a very similar critique, though, of course, stepping back into safe territory when looking at what, if anything, can be done to call to account those at the top of the Commission and the Council.

Today’s “Brussels Briefing” email to subscribers has as its lead article and main content “Von der Leyen under fire,” by Mehreen Khan. As is typical of these briefings, which are digests pointing the reader to detailed articles on aspects of the overall question of the day, Khan talks about Friday’s misstep of von der Leyen with respect to Ireland and the EU’s claims to monitor and control the shipment of vaccines from its territory to the rest of the world.  She points to the pending conflict with Japan and Canada that the same rash and highhanded policy of the Commission President has ignited.  And then in the middle of this twaddle, Khan comes to an essential question that underlies the whole failure of the vaccine program and much else in the daily business conducted by the EU Institutions.  We read with respect to Sandra Gallina, the commission’s director-general for health policy:

“Ms Gallina is expected to be quizzed by MEPs over the restrictions and a broader vaccine strategy that is struggling to meet demand. As the official in charge of negotiating contacts with drugmakers since last year, she has won plaudits for securing jabs at competitive prices. But with many EU regions having to halt vaccinations because of shortages, the strategy has prompted questions as to whether Brussels has wrongly prioritised cost over delivery.  Ultimately it is the commission president who will need to do the talking. Liberal MEP Sophie in t’Veld has demanded Ms von der Leyen explain the ‘procurement saga in a full and public session this week.’”

And Khan then goes to the political dimension of von der Leyen’s vaccination management :

“Ms von der Leyen faces a chorus of private criticism from officials and diplomats about how her centralised management was partly responsible for Friday’s mishap [over Ireland].  She has tried to defuse the furore by announcing that AstraZeneca will up its deliveries by 9m in the first quarter, to a total of 40m – still far shy of initial hopes.”

So where does all this lead in the view of the FT?  Nowhere, they say with comforting words: 

“Ms von der Leyen’s position is not under threat, as she retains the support of the powerful member states that got her the job (France and Germany).”

A lovely conclusion, but one arrived at by airbrushing the story of von der Leyen’s nomination and the confirmation process in the European Parliament.  The fact is that the appointment of the European Commission President was carried out in strict violation of the recently established tradition of giving the post to the head of the party that won the greatest number of votes in the elections to the European Parliament. That party was the German partner of the European People’s Party and it had a candidate who was sidelined under pressure from Emmanuel Macron at a time when Angela Merkel was on the back foot due to health and political problems.  Because of the scandals surrounding her mismanagement of the Defense Ministry in Germany, von der Leyen did not enjoy the united support of her own country, Germany, and as a result of that split, she barely, very barely won confirmation in the full voting of the Parliament.  Therefore, the FT’s conclusions about her unsinkability are very easily challenged.

But putting aside the question of von der Leyen’s political future and a possible vote of no confidence in the Parliament, the FT article points to a dimension of the decision making surrounding management of the Covid-19 crisis at the EU level and surely also at the national levels of Member States:  economizing in ways that are penny wise and pound foolish.

Given the economic devastation caused by Covid shutdowns, the only dike till now against uncontrollable replication of the virus, it is simply stupid to have prioritized cost saving in negotiations with the drug manufacturers over secure delivery schedules.

In light of the recent policy decision of Germany to disallow administration of the AstraZeneca vaccine among those over 65 years of age because of its apparent ineffectiveness in raising immunity in the old, who happen to be the most vulnerable group in the general population to serious illness and death from Covid, we have to ask what is the value of von der Leyen’s hammering the company over its failure to meet delivery promises.  Why is the Commission not turning instead to Pfizer, to Moderna and to others whose vaccines have given much more promising results for all age groups as detailed in Phase 3 studies.

Is von der Leyen planning to foist the AstraZeneca vaccine on seniors just because her scientific advisers made the wrong choice in choosing suppliers?  Then again, I raise my question about the whole decision-making process that excluded from consideration the Russian vaccine and other competing vaccines from around the world.

Let us hope that the MEPs in the coming week find a bit of courage to press these questions and put von der Leyen to a vote of no confidence.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021