It's time for VDL to admit errors and develop a more global plan

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt urges the Commission’s president to delegate tactical handling of the Covid crisis to her colleagues and concentrate instead on masterminding a global post-pandemic strategy

When Ursula von der Leyen steps down in autumn 2024, she will probably look back on this Easter as marking only the initial phase of the Covid crisis. It has already overwhelmed her presidency of the European Commission and undermined the credibility of the European Union as a whole. On present showing, the future of European integration is at risk.

President Von der Leyen cuts a sympathetic picture at the lectern; she is articulate and has won widespread recognition as figurehead of the EU’s efforts to contain Covid-19. But that’s not her role – she shouldn’t be standing in front of the media. Her job is to be the commission’s chief strategist, not its spokesperson.

At the onset of the Covid-19 crisis she should have appointed one or more commissioners to lead a tactical force to handle the dauntingly unfamiliar issues. She should also have sacked the Eurocrats who mishandled vaccine procurement on behalf of the EU’s member states.

The commission president must stop repeating the same mistakes

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, so criticism of past missteps can seem facile. Foresight is another matter, and Ursula von der Leyen should heed the growing chorus of discontent. That would mean disengaging immediately from the war of words with Boris Johnson in the UK and retreating from the sanctions and export bans levelled against AstraZeneca.

The commission president must stop repeating the same mistakes. The coming three years could save not only her reputation but also the fortunes of the EU.

Europhiles often speak of the EU’s ‘soft power’, but its ‘convening power’ counts as much. Yet here the Brussels institutions – and in present circumstances that chiefly means the commission – have been inert. As the global scale of the crisis became plain, the commission should have deployed its political firepower to support a coordinated international response.

Bodies like the World Health Organization and a slew of UN agencies are outside the EU’s remit, but they would surely have welcomed support and suggestions from the EU. And Brussels would have gained in visibility and reputation when it is battered by the haemorrhaging of solidarity between its member states.

The EU should champion mechanisms for softening the pandemic’s longer-term impact

Von der Leyen’s priority should be to rally EU governments around a detailed strategy for the post-Covid geo-economy. The EU is uniquely well-placed to launch a global debate on how to head-off future pandemics that might be even more dangerous. As to the here and now, trade and aid questions within the EU and beyond must be addressed before rather than after Covid’s full damage is done.

Donald Trump’s disruptive and erratic approach to international relations confused earlier attempts to forge cohesive responses. Now he’s gone, the EU should champion mechanisms for softening the pandemic’s longer-term impact, notably on emerging markets that are already drowning in debt.

In the US, President Joe Biden is preoccupied with his domestic strategy to contain Covid-19 while also repairing deep rifts in American society. His administration lacks the bandwidth to tackle a more international approach, but it would unstintingly support one masterminded by the European Union. That’s the prize within the EU’s grasp if Ursula von der Leyen can rally Europe’s heads of government to a global Covid counter-attack.

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