A “vindictive” Ursula von de Leyen, motivated by her hatred of Brexit, overruled her top trade advisors with a plan for a new Irish border, The Telegraph has learned.
The European Commission president was warned she would cause uproar but pressed on regardless as part of what one of her own employees called “an increasingly vindictive” attitude towards the UK government.
Furious Brussels-based diplomats were yesterday piling pressure on the Commission chief over her disastrous handling of the affair amid suggestions of waning confidence in her abilities. Her aborted decision to force through a border without even notifying either Ireland or the UK was considered highly damaging for the reputation of the Brussels executive, which had promised over years of Brexit negotiations that this was precisely what it was trying to avoid.
“She needs to go. Now,” one diplomat told the Sunday Telegraph. “She told f—— no-one. After four years of tedious skullduggery over the backstop. Surely the commission could have thought of the optics?”
The Brussels regulator “is quite successfully undermining its own credibility on the rule of law,” the diplomat continued. “Do they really think this will improve their credibility as contract negotiator? It’s not like you couldn’t see this coming…Was there no one to protect her from going here? Everyone has just gone stark raving mad.”
The fiasco added to growing dissatisfaction with the commission’s management of the vaccine rollout in a number of EU capitals, including Rome and Madrid. Pressure on von der Leyen was said to be “huge and increasing”.
The Commission’s trade ministry or ‘directorate-general’, known as DG Trade, is headed by Sabine Weyand, who played a key role in the Brexit talks and the Irish ‘backstop’ negotiations. Given that Ms Weyand is said to be perfectly aware of the Irish sensitivities, there was much head-scratching in Brussels when the border proposal was published on Friday and then hastily retracted amid condemnation from across the political spectrum in both Ireland and the UK.
“This was all about health, not trade, so there’s no point blaming trade officials,” said one EC insider. “No-one in DG Trade, including Weyand, liked it, but on the health side they were worried about vaccine leaking into the UK via Ireland”. The commission is thought to have identified the Pfizer plant at Grange Castle, on the outskirts of Dublin, as a site for possible transshipment of vaccines into the UK. Pfizer’s Covid vaccines are given quality control checks at both the Grange Castle site and the Puurs site in Belgium, before being released to the market.
Asked who in the EC was responsible for pushing the border proposal through, the source said: “You know who is in charge of Covid policy at the moment. She is getting increasingly vindictive because of this Brexit thing”. President Von der Leyen is said to have taken personal control of the commission’s vaccine policy over the last two weeks.
Ms von der Leyen’s spokesman, Eric Mamer, declined to comment on the accusations. “We never comment on internal drafting and decision-making processes in the Commission,” he said.
While the border proposal has now been dropped, the threat of EU vaccine export controls (referred to by the EC as ‘export licences’) remains.
Acting on the EC’s request, Belgian health authorities last week raided the Seneffe plant in Wallonia to ensure vaccines had not been shipped to the UK. The plant, which is part of the AstraZeneca supply chain though not owned by the Anglo-Swedish company, produces ‘vector’, a substance that facilitates the vaccine’s circulation in the body. The AstraZeneca shortfalls that have angered the EU are due to slower than expected vector production at Seneffe rather than any sneaky UK shipments, Belgian media has reported since the raid.
Also at the EU’s behest, the Belgian health ministry was this weekend drawing up plans for enforcing the export ban across the pharmaceutical sector, one of the largest in the EU. There is however resistance within the industry itself, which fears tit-for-tat protectionist measures that could backfire.
“We understand the frustration caused by recent reports of reductions in the supply of Covid-19 vaccines to the European Union,” said Caroline Ven, chief executive of Pharma.be, Belgium’s industry body. “But the production of billions of doses for the world’s population remains an unprecedented challenge. We are working around the clock to refine that process. It is therefore vital that the proposed measures do not adversely affect the export of vaccines or the import of important resources necessary for vaccine production,” Ms Ven told Belgian newspaper De Tijd.
It came as the German media rounded Ms von der Leyen, accusing her of shifting the blame for the continent’s vaccine fiasco onto the pharma companies.
Most of Germany’s major media houses lined up to fire shots at Ms von der Leyen, a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, who was promoted from a position as German defence minister to run the Commision in 2019.
Ms von der Leyen is accused of failing to obtain cast iron guarantees from the pharma concern AstraZeneca on a delivery schedule for its vaccine.
The British-Swedish company has argued that the contract, which was signed in the summer, only commits the company to “best efforts” to deliver 100 million does of the vaccine in the first quarter of 2021.
But Ms von der Leyen took the German airwaves on Friday to claim that the contract was “crystal clear” on the obligations AstraZeneca had made to stick to a delivery time-frame.
After a redacted version of the contract, which referenced “best efforts” on the part of AstraZeneca, was published by the Commission later on Friday, some media outlets turned on the Commission chief.
“She either told an intentional lie to the 447 million citizens of Europe or she didn’t know what was in her own contract,” wrote national daily Bild in an editorial.
The tabloid added that Ms von der Leyen “was a failure as defence minister” and now bore the blame for the vaccine fiasco due to the fact that she “took over everything in Brussels.”
Ms von de Leyen, 62, was dogged by controversy during six years running the German Defence Ministry.
She became entangled in allegations of irregular hiring of outside contractors to the tune of hundreds of millions of euros.
“When she announced this week that the pharmaceutical companies bore responsibility for the vaccine disaster, there are those in the defence ministry who likely felt a sense of déjà vu,” Spiegel magazine commented.