Ursula von der Leyen accidentally makes the case for Brexit as she tries to explain EU vaccine delays

·3-min read
Ursula von der Leyen has suffered the worst week of her commission presidency. - PA
Ursula von der Leyen has suffered the worst week of her commission presidency. - PA

Ursula von der Leyen has compared Brexit Britain to a “speedboat” when it comes to securing coronavirus vaccines, while likening the EU to a slower tanker.

The European Commission president accidentally made the case for Brexit after enduring weeks of criticism after delays in supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine to the EU

She admitted that the bloc of 27 countries took longer to make decisions over contracts for Covid-19 jabs than a single country would.

“Alone, a country can be a speedboat, while the EU is more like a tanker,” Mrs von der Leyen said.

“Before concluding a contract [...] the 27 member states had five full days to say whether they agreed or not. This naturally delays the process."

Mrs von der Leyen defended the slower approach of working as a bloc. “I can't even imagine what it would have meant for Europe, in terms of unity, if one or more Member States had access to vaccines and not the others,” she said.

The commission negotiated supply contracts with pharmaceutical companies on behalf of the 27 member states, which meant lower prices.

But Brussels signed its deal with AstraZeneca three months after Britain, which approved the vaccine much quicker than the EU. Brussels insists that its slower process was safer than Britain’s.

“The United Kingdom has chosen the path of emergency marketing authorisations, we have chosen another,” Mrs von der Leyen told a group of European newspapers in a pooled interview.

“This is necessary, because the responsibility is enormous when it comes to injecting a biologically active substance into a healthy person.”

Watch: Von Der Leyen Deflects Blame for Vaccine Gaffe

The commission launched a string of public attacks on AstraZeneca last week after the company said it could only provide a quarter of the vaccines it had promised for the first quarter of the year.

The row culminated in Mrs von der Leyen triggering Article 16 of the Brexit treaty’s Northern Ireland Protocol, to prevent jabs being smuggled into mainland Britain if an EU vaccine export ban was imposed.

The move to introduce a hard border on the island of Ireland was dropped after furious interventions from Dublin and London last Friday. Mrs von der Leyen finally took personal responsibility for the error in the interview.

She said, “We shouldn't even have thought about Article 16! I regret it. The Commission took around 1,500 decisions in a short period of time and almost 900 emergency decisions under very high pressure.

“Whatever the Commission does or decides, I have full responsibility,” she said a week after her spokesman attempted to pin the blame for the controversy on her trade commissioner.

In an attempt to draw a line under the fiasco, which ended with AstraZeneca promising nine million more vaccines, Mrs von der Leyen said she should have been more upfront about the risk of disruption to deliveries.

“Looking in the rearview mirror, we should have thought more about mass production and the challenges it poses,” she said.

“We should have warned, explaining that at the beginning, the process would not be smooth, that there would be ups and downs.”

The 62-year-old said she had no idea when she would receive a vaccine. European Commission officials are part of the Belgian vaccination roll-out.

Watch: EU Says AstraZeneca Contract Should Be Published