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15 September 2021updated 16 Sep 2021 5:48am

How Ursula von der Leyen is resetting her presidency with EU vaccine success

An optimistic State of the Union address from the EU Commission President follows a quietly effective pandemic response.

By Ido Vock

After a slow start, the EU’s vaccination campaign ramped up this summer. So on 15 September, following months of international criticism of the EU’s approach, a well-publicised feud with the drugmaker AstraZeneca and gloating from the British government about its decision not to participate in the EU-wide vaccine acquisition scheme, Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union address to the European Parliament represented an attempt to set the record straight.

“Today, and against all critics, Europe is among the world leaders” in vaccination, the European Commission president crowed. In typical EU jargon, she added: “we did it the right way, because we did it the European way.”

Such triumphalism is a stark reversal from earlier this year, when the picture seemed dire. The EU, one of the world’s richest regions and the source of much of its vaccine production, was behind on its vaccination programme. AstraZeneca had failed to provide the bloc with tens of millions of doses it had promised. The subsequent vaccine dispute culminated in von der Leyen’s Commission taking the ill-advised decision – swiftly reversed – to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to prevent EU-made vaccines entering Great Britain through Northern Ireland. The incendiary move was viewed as a threat to peace in Ireland. 

Von der Leyen faced calls to resign over the repeated blunders. Those calls did not abate in the following months as the EU continued to lag behind its peers in the rich world. By April, the EU had inoculated less than half the proportion of the population that had been jabbed in the US and UK. That month, her administration took AstraZeneca to court for failing to deliver the number of vaccine doses the drugmaker had promised the EU, a case it would ultimately lose

Yet by the early summer, the picture had begun to shift. The EU began to prioritise jabs made by Pfizer, manufactured in Belgium, over other approved vaccines. In May, it put in an order for 900 million extra doses, a vote of confidence in the drugmaker. The pace of vaccinations picked up in the following months, largely due to the widespread use of the Pfizer jab. As reports of rare blood clots linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine emerged, denting public confidence in the vaccine, the EU’s increased reliance on Pfizer began to appear a blessing in disguise. 

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By mid-July, the proportion of Europeans vaccinated was higher than in the US. 

Other decisions paid off too. An EU-wide vaccine passport scheme, pushed by tourism-dependent governments in the south, came into effect on 1 July. Having a mutually-recognised scheme in place early on paid off, allowing Europeans to enjoy international holidays with minimal cost and bureaucracy, a contrast to other regions which lack a unified and mutually-recognised system for verifying vaccination status. The EU’s certification scheme also serves as the basis for the domestic vaccine passport schemes many member states have since adopted. 

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The vaccination race is the most important immediate issue for Europeans. “A pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint,” von der Leyen said, not entirely accurately. (Jeremy Cliffe showed why the vaccine race is both a marathon and a sprint earlier this year). The UK’s early vaccine success was a large part of the reason why it was able to remove most Covid-19 restrictions months ahead of other European countries. Still, she is undoubtedly buoyed by the reversal in fortunes the EU has enjoyed. 

That optimism was reflected elsewhere in von der Leyen’s State of the Union, where she noted other advances she has overseen since taking office in 2019. She credited the EU recovery fund, the first time in history member states have agreed to take on mutualised debt to finance each other, with helping kickstart the economic recovery from the Covid crisis. The European Green Deal, a set of policy initiatives intended to reduce emissions by 55 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, will be boosted with a few modest additions, such as a new “Social Climate Fund”, to address social inequity in the climate transition. She also proposed what she called the “Global Gateway”, an infrastructure scheme intended to rival China’s Belt and Road initiative.

A mooted plan for a European Defence Union (EDU) is perhaps von der Leyen’s most ambitious proposal. Long suggested, never fully realised, mutualised defence capacity would be a step towards achieving “strategic autonomy” for the EU. A proposed EDU can be seen as in part a reaction to a growing transatlantic divide over security issues, most recently in full view over the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

“There will be missions where NATO or the UN will not be present, but where the EU should be,” von der Leyen said, hinting at a desire for an EU better able to project force when its allies are unwilling. Whether the proposal comes to pass – previous suggested schemes amounting to an EU army have never been realised – remains highly uncertain. It will face opposition from some member states, as well as questions about how it is likely to function in practice, given that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU has left the Union with only one major military power, France. 

A section on the rule of law, a reference to the conflict between Brussels and member states such as Hungary, was light on specifics of how Viktor Orban’s government could be brought into line, as the EU has vanishingly few mechanisms to enforce the sanctions it says are needed. 

But even Orban cannot curb the undeniable spring in von der Leyen’s step. She warned against repeating the mistakes of the 2008 financial crisis, when “Europe declared victory too soon”. Make no mistake, though: her State of the Union represented an attempt to reset her leadership following the quiet success of the EU’s pandemic response. She wasn’t declaring victory, but she did suggest that her leadership means there is light at the end of the tunnel.