Von der Leyen faces scrutiny over shaky EU vaccine strategy

Philip Blenkinsop
·3-min read

By Philip Blenkinsop

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU chief executive Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday faced hours of questioning by lawmakers over the European Commission's vaccine strategy, focusing on a slow roll-out and an export control plan that dismayed Britain and Ireland.

Questions still surround the Commission's decision - swiftly reversed - to invoke Article 16 of the Brexit agreement's Northern Ireland protocol, a move that would have set up border checks on the island of Ireland.

Von der Leyen, who has tweeted and appeared only on German television since the bloc mandated authorisation for vaccine exports, will be quizzed in meetings of three European Parliament groupings on Tuesday evening and another on Wednesday morning.

Sophie in 't Veld, a Dutch liberal lawmaker, said before her group met that von der Leyen was relying on too narrow a circle of advisers.

"She's made a couple of big fat mistakes. Article 16 was one," she told Reuters, adding that her tendency to speak only to German media was another problem.

A senior EU diplomat said von der Leyen's position was probably safe with a closing of ranks around the Commission, but there would be "some unpleasantness in coming days".

Senior British minister Michael Gove, who is to meet his Commission counterpart on Wednesday, said London's trust in Brussels had been eroded and that the two must resolve serious problems over post-Brexit trade arrangements for Northern Ireland.

REGRET OVER 'PROVISIONAL' DECISION

In interviews with newspapers outside Germany, the European Commission president sought to defuse criticism over the EU's slow start to COVID-19 vaccinations and outrage over the border checks issue.

Asked by the Irish Times if she would apologise, von der Leyen said she regretted that Article 16 was in a "provisional version" of the decision, but said the EU executive had been "quick on its feet" to find another solution.

In similar comments to France's Le Monde she said: "When you take urgent decisions - in this year of crisis, the Commission has taken almost 900 - there is always a risk of missing something."

The vaccine crisis, which came to a head with EU export controls announced on Friday, followed news that AstraZeneca would cut its supply of vaccines to the bloc until March by 60% due to production problems.

Even with the addition of an extra 9 million doses that von der Leyen announced on Sunday, the shortfall is at least 50%.

EU countries have so far given first doses to about 3% of their populations, compared with 9% for the United States and 14% for Britain, according to Our World in Data.

Von der Leyen said the supply problems should ease in the second quarter of 2021, with more production capacity for BioNTech/Pfizer and other potential approvals of vaccines, including from Johnson & Johnson.

The Commission has ordered 2.3 billion doses from six producers, far more than the bloc requires. Production, though, was an enormous challenge, with clear teething problems.

"I see it as a marathon in which we have only covered the first kilometres," she told Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant.

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; additional reporting by John Chalmers; Editing by Gareth Jones and Angus MacSwan)