What the vaccine row tells us about the Commission's worth

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt argues that the vaccine debacle’s chief lesson is the need for a European Commission overhaul to confront daunting post-Covid challenges

Now the EU vaccines furore is dying down, and the European Commission’s internal blame game is abating, it’s time to draw the real lessons of the debacle. With its 65th birthday looming, is the Commission as presently structured fit for purpose?

Ursula von der Leyen has taken most of the heat for the Covid vaccines’ mismanagement. She brought to her private office a tight-knit German team that some say insulated her from a wider range of advisors, but so too did most Commission presidents before her. The real culprit is the Commission’s own culture, not von der Leyen’s leadership.

The Commission rose to the challenge when the scale of the Covid crisis became clear

Unlike a national civil service, the Brussels commission isn’t regularly shaken up by newly-elected governments. Sporadic streamlining and re-shuffles of its Directorates-General have seen it adapt to tumultuous upheavals like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the EU’s ‘Big Bang’ enlargement, but these were not genuine reforms.

Some argue that the problems created by a global pandemic are so novel that the Commission’s missteps do not warrant a radical reappraisal of its administrative and political architecture. That view, however, ignores the wider dimension of the Covid crisis, which is the EU’s economic recovery role and the prospect of it gaining tax-raising powers.

The Commission rose to the challenge when the scale of the Covid crisis became clear last spring. It saw opportunity for itself as it moved to head off intra-EU rivalries. But it failed to recognise its own practical inadequacies and its limited geopolitical vision.

The 21st century has tested the Commission and found it wanting

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It’s easy to look back and criticise the Commission’s focus on the EU-27 while it largely ignored the world’s 150 or so poorer countries. In doing so it missed the chance to establish the EU as a foremost global saviour. China was preoccupied with stamping out the virus that had first emerged there, and the US was divided by Trump’s re-election bid.

There’s no point in discussing the how’s and why’s of the EU’s failure to seize the crisis management reins and orchestrate a global strategy. Thinking on such a grand scale is not in the Commission’s DNA, and that’s the crux of the problem.

Conceived in the late 1950s as an innovative hybrid institution that combined regulatory watchdog responsibilities with a monopoly of policy proposals, the Commission quickly became a high priesthood in the cause of European integration. Its formative years up to the mid-1990s were marked by admirable successes.

But the 21st century has tested the Commission and found it wanting – too many commissioners, too much interference from member governments, too little original thinking and a culture of omertà to cloak mismanagements and misguided decisions.

Post-pandemic Europe is going to be very different

If the Commission is to achieve the ambitions shared by many Eurocrats of becoming a more truly executive body, then it must accept root-and-branch reform. It has to open its ranks to specialists from business, academia and professionals, including journalists and communications experts. It should end the ‘lifetime employment’ awarded to those who pass the largely outmoded concours exam, and instead convect people in and out of the Commission on short-term contracts.

By the same token, member states should bow to longstanding calls to stop sending political appointees from all 27 countries. Nine could be selected by voters in a sidebar to the European Parliament elections. The precise mechanism is less important than the signal it would send.

Post-pandemic Europe (along with the rest of the world) is going to be very different. Searching questions will be asked about the nature of capitalism, social equity and present-day political arrangements. The EU institutions, and particularly the Commission, will not be allowed to stand back from the coming turmoil.

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