The fight to succeed Angela Merkel is feeding into a frenzy over the EU’s coronavirus vaccination strategy.
While some EU members don’t appear too concerned about lagging behind the United States, Britain and Israel in vaccination rates, German politicians are engaged in a furious blame game over why their country is not moving faster.
Adding spice to the mix: The leading protagonists are possible successors to Merkel after September’s general election, including Bavarian state premier Markus Söder, Health Minister Jens Spahn and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz. Germany is in almost nonstop campaign mode this year, with six regional elections as well as the national vote.
Some EU officials and diplomats say the European Commission, under its German president, Ursula von der Leyen, is paying too much attention to pressure from Germany and being rushed into bad decisions. They also express concern that the EU is taking a public beating because it suits some German politicians to attack Brussels.
Pushed by Berlin and some other EU capitals, von der Leyen late last month moved hastily to impose vaccine export controls after British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca said it would deliver far fewer doses than planned. That set off a political firestorm as her plans included overriding part of the Brexit deal meant to preserve peace on the island of Ireland.
Von der Leyen — a former German defense minister who brought two close aides from Berlin to form the core of her inner circle in Brussels — was forced into a late-night U-turn, damaging her own credibility and the Commission’s reputation.
“There was pressure from Berlin,” said Michael Link, a former German minister for European affairs from the liberal Free Democrats. “And it seems to me that, amid that pressure, von der Leyen lost her instinct for what’s right for Europe. She made a fatal mistake that should have never happened.”
Von der Leyen’s focus on German public opinion was evident in the days surrounding the export-control debacle. Earlier on the Friday that the Commission published its plans, she appeared on Germany’s Deutschlandfunk national radio station. She ended the weekend with an interview on German TV station ZDF.
“Certainly this toxic debate in Germany contributed to a certain extent” to the Ireland fiasco, said a senior EU diplomat.
Asked about the export controls and the possible effect of German politics on its decision, a Commission spokesperson said “the Commission is always in close contacts with member states” but the Ireland measure “arose during internal discussions in the Commission.”
The Commission also sought to deflect criticism that von der Leyen was too focused on German media by inviting journalists from other outlets for group interviews in the week following the U-turn.
Clément Beaune, France’s European affairs minister, suggested the German debate meant that the EU was getting more than its fair share of criticism.
“There’s a strong national dimension that plays into appraisals of the way Europe has managed the vaccines,” Beaune said. “First of all because it is always easier to attack the European level. Then because in Germany, the pre-election context and the fact that Ursula von der Leyen comes from German politics focus even more attention and criticism on the EU.”
For a country that takes great pride in its reputation for efficiency and being atop prestigious international rankings, trailing behind Britain and others in the vaccination stakes has touched a nerve — particularly after Germany was widely praised for its handling of the first coronavirus wave.
“There’s wide disappointment that the vaccine is still not available in larger quantities, even though it has been developed at home,” said Guntram Wolff, a German economist who is the director of the Bruegel think tank in Brussels. “People simply see that things can be done better. And they find that disappointing.”
Much of the criticism of the EU has come from parties inside Merkel’s government, such as Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU) — sister party to the chancellor’s Christian Democrats (CDU) — and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).
Bavarian leader Söder has criticized the EU’s approach as “disappointing” and “accompanied by many misjudgments.”
Scholz, the finance minister who also serves as vice chancellor and is the SPD’s official candidate to succeed Merkel, accused Brussels of having set the wrong priorities: “If the Commission had asked us for more funding, we would have sent additional money to the EU,” he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.
For its part, the Commission has insisted that more money would not have yielded more vaccines and has blamed the delays in deliveries largely on manufacturing problems. It has also defended taking longer to seal contracts with vaccine makers than some countries, arguing it was worth pushing to get drugmakers to assume liability for their products. Finally, it has stood by a vaccine approval process that it says is more rigorous than others, even if it takes somewhat longer.
For Scholz and his Social Democrats, meanwhile, the criticism offers a chance to attack the Christian Democrats, who are most associated with the EU strategy in the German political realm. Merkel, von der Leyen and Spahn are all CDU politicians.
And as the poll-leading CDU/CSU has yet to choose its candidate for chancellor, politicians within that alliance have a strong incentive to speak out on what’s being called the “vaccine disaster” in Germany.
Söder’s criticism of the EU can also be seen as pushing blame toward Spahn, who was involved in formulating the bloc’s strategy as health minister.
Spahn has stressed that he pushed from the start for proactive vaccine procurement — first by forming an alliance with France, Italy and the Netherlands, then by advocating for the purchase of the more expensive BioNTech/Pfizer jab despite resistance from EU partners. He was also among those leading the call for export controls on vaccines shortly before the Commission pulled the trigger.
German anger at the vaccination rollout has also spilled over into Brussels in the form of attacks by Bild, Germany’s most popular daily, on European Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides.
The newspaper has claimed that the Cypriot politician lacks the necessary qualifications and clout — and that she “put her feet up” last year when she should have busy procuring vaccines for the EU. The tabloid even sent a team to Nicosia to file stories and live videos in front of Kyriakides’ villa.
Asked about the criticism, the Commission said Kyriakides “is fully aware of the European citizens’ concerns and anxiety about the pandemic” and is “working 24/7 to ensure that vaccines are produced and delivered as swiftly as possible.”
One EU official said that Brussels should be braced for more heat from Germany as election campaigning intensifies.
“Currently the hope is that the situation will calm down as more and more vaccines will become available in the coming months and the pandemic situation improves,” the official said. “But if it continues on this bumpy path, this has just been a foretaste of how brutal the German election will become for Brussels.”
Rym Momtaz contributed reporting.
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