Following weeks of mounting pressure on herself and the institution over her vaccine strategy and the fallout of the accidental almost-triggering of Article 16, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made her way to the European Parliament to defend herself.
Speaking to Members of the European Parliament during this week’s hybrid plenary session, von der Leyen defended the fundamental approach agreed between her and all EU leaders mid-last year that all vaccines for the EU27 should be procured jointly through the European Commission.
Despite criticism of the strategy being increasingly voiced by national policymakers in a number of Member States, von der Leyen, backed by Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides, repeatedly stressed that while the joint approach may indeed be a bit slower, it was the only way of ensuring cohesion between the 27 different Member States, thus preventing a vaccine race in which the few “richer” countries would out-purchase the rest. Such an approach would undermine social cohesion between EU countries, further delaying the economic recovery.
While strongly defending her course of action to MEPs, President von der Leyen also finally admitted that “we are still not where we want to be” and that “mistakes were made.” While the initial admission referenced the bloc’s tentative approach towards authorisations and vaccine rollout, the latter admission of “mistakes” was much more loaded and broader in its reference.
With reference to the apparent supply chain issues holding back the various pharma companies from fulfilling their contractual obligations to the EU in recent weeks, the Commission President admitted that “we were too optimistic when it came to massive production. And perhaps we were too confident that what we ordered would actually be delivered on time.” The comment was of course also a reference to the fallout of the fight with AstraZeneca over the company’s contractual delivery obligations and the ensuing debacle over the Commission almost accidentally triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol leading to a land border on the island of Ireland.
Although the provision was discovered, and removed, within minutes of being published to the media, the fact it was included in the first place caused outrage amongst Irish MEPs, who demanded straight answers on Wednesday. Those looking for explanations over what happened, however, were left disappointed.
While President von der Leyen admitted that she “deeply regretted” the “mistakes [that] were made” in the process, she insisted that “in the end, we got it right.” Trying to further assuage the deep concerns of MEPs over the Commission’s commitment to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, she added that “my Commission will do its utmost to protect the peace in Northern Ireland.”
Von der Leyen also promised MEPs concerned over a lack of transparency regarding the Commission’s contracts with pharma companies and the Commission’s internal decision making on procurement, that the Commission would work to make more contracts available to them. Moreover, on Thursday, the Commission also agreed to set up a contact group with the European Parliament to give the latter greater oversight over the implementation of the Commission’s vaccine strategy.