Theresa May of Brussels

With Michel Barnier and Donald Tusk in charge of the Brexit brief, the EU played a diplomatic blinder against Britain. But today it’s a clueless Ursula von der Leyen who is holding the ring

March 24, 2021
Photo: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

Henry Kissinger used to say: when I want to speak to Europe, who do I call? In his case, it might often have been better not to take the call. But the vaccine crisis shows an alarming power vacuum, as the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, looks increasingly like the Theresa May of Brussels.

She may even be worse. Even with bizarre non-statements of strategic purpose like “Brexit means Brexit,” May never said anything as stupid as “I'm aware that a country might be a speedboat and the EU more a tanker.” That line was in relation to the EU’s failure to procure the vaccine at the outset, while Speedboat Britain did so. This one sentence destroyed von der Leyen’s leadership, partly because she said it, but mostly because, under her, it was true.

For it is absolutely not the case that the EU—or federations generally—are congenitally incapable of acting effectively and fast compared to individual states. It is all a question of leadership.

Compare and contrast von der Leyen on the vaccine with Michel Barnier on Brexit. Manoeuvring through the unprecedented and complex crisis of a member state leaving, with divergent views among EU members, the man the Commission had put in charge of haggling with Britain constantly maintained the initiative and EU unity, running rings around May, Johnson and the best of the British Foreign Office. His variegated display of speed and patience, rapier and bludgeon, soft and loud, was like Simon Rattle conducting the London Symphony Orchestra—sorry, I mean the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, where he is moving because of Brexit.

The moment of lightning-like illumination was the point where the Brexit and vaccine crises met two months ago, on 28th January. That was the day when, with no diplomacy or evident awareness of the consequences, von der Leyen announced her intention to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol and restrict vaccine imports to Britain through Ireland, as a desperate panic reaction to the lack of vaccine supplies reaching the citizens of the EU compared to Britain.

In one single moment, the president of the European Commission undermined five years of successful leadership by Barnier to protect Ireland and the open border with Northern Ireland after Brexit, championing the Northern Ireland peace process and a new European civilisation of peaceful coexistence and mutual respect which Brexit Britain—he claimed plausibly—was threatening. He secured a negotiating triumph—and the moral high ground. Barnier himself, very diplomatically of course, was one of the first to seek to talk von der Leyen off the ledge and back into the negotiating room. Within hours, the Article 16 threat was withdrawn.

Barnier, not von der Leyen, should have taken the top job in Brussels after the fairly weak tenure of Jean-Claude Juncker, a lowest-common-denominator ex-prime minister of Luxembourg. The problem was that France’s Christine Lagarde had already taken the presidency of the European Central Bank, and the last-minute horse-trading of top EU jobs yielded an even lower common denominator German.

It is hard but not impossible to remove a Commission president. It happened 20-odd years ago to another weak Luxembourger, Jacques Santer, who proved unable to navigate through a low-grade expenses scandal affecting fellow commissioners. For the first and only time so far the European Parliament wielded its power to vote no confidence in the Commission, and Santer resigned, his deputy standing in until a marginally better permanent replacement arrived in the form of the former prime minister of Italy, Romano Prodi.

A few years later a change was made to the leadership structure in Brussels to provide for a full-time President of the European Council—who holds the ring when the national leaders meet—alongside that of the Commission. The best leader produced under this twin-headed leadership so far was Donald Tusk, the brilliant former Solidarity activist who became democratic Prime Minister of Poland, and led the Council while Juncker was at the helm of the Commission. Tusk, in a double act with Barnier, also played a blinder during Brexit.

Change isn’t always a good thing. Sometimes you end up with something even worse. Theresa May was replaced by Boris Johnson. But I doubt von der Leyen’s replacement would be Salvini or Orbán, so the time may be coming.