Von der Leyen remains freezing with the EU’s slow vaccination rollout

  • + The slow vaccination rollout is making Von der Leyen lose legitimacy.  
  • + This is preventing her from focusing on her other goals for the EU.
  • + Her reputation revolves around the success of the delivery of vaccinations within the EU.
The slow vaccination rollout is making Von der Leyen lose legitimacy and preventing her from focusing on her other goals for the EU prior to the pandemic.
Source: Reuters.

Why is Von der Leyen’s heat level freezing?

Answer: EU’s slow vaccination rollout, shortage and export block proposal has decreased her credibility regarding the handling of the pandemic.

When Ursula Von der Leyen became the president of the European Commission on the 1st of December 2019, she had no idea that she would have to deal with a pandemic only a few months later. Here we are, a little over a year into the pandemic and solely 6% of the EU population is vaccinated. How come? 

On the 17th of June 2020, the European Commission introduced its vaccine strategy which focused on two objectives. Firstly, securing the development of vaccines in the EU and supplying its member states with adequate supplies. Secondly, adjusting the EU’s complex legislative system to the urgency of the pandemic in order to expedite the vaccination production. Following a successful strategy, EU countries obtained their first few batches in December, prioritizing vulnerable groups and creating hope amongst the population.

The EU set a goal of having at least 80% of people over 80 and 80% of health workers vaccinated by the end of March 2021 in each member state. Although the EU paid for 2.3 billion doses of the various vaccines, it solely received a small portion of that amount. The major vaccines saw their production slowing down and this resulted in shortages. Quickly, Von der Leyen realized that the goal she set was not going to be met. 

On the 29th of January 2021, as a result of the vaccine shortage, the European Commission, headed by Von der Leyen, decided to set an export ban. This decision quickly created an uproar of negative comments. The WHO chief, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that “vaccine hoarding would keep the pandemic burning and… slow global economic recovery”, as well as it being a “catastrophic moral failure that could further increase global inequality”.

Following the negative discussion, the EC decided to retract its initial proposal. Yet the problem still remains: vaccines are nowhere to be seen and Von der Leyen is not even close to achieving the public success she would have wished for in her first year as president.

Who is changing Von der Leyen’s temperature?

Answer: European leaders and the media are exerting pressure on her. 

Various media are not only criticising the slow vaccination process of the EU but are also highlighting vaccination achievements of other countries as a contrast to the failed EU efforts thus far. This has triggered negative public opinion as well as led to additional pressure on European leaders owing to the fact that their citizens want to get vaccinated and wonder why it is taking longer than other countries such as the United Kingdom, and Israel for example. 

The COVID-19 vaccination has become a race, and every country wants to be a winner. Nevertheless, none of the EU member states are close to leading the race due to the ongoing shortage which was caused due to production problems in major vaccination companies, leading them to lower the amount of promised vaccines. This could potentially cause tensions and frustrations amongst member states, which in return adds more pressure on the European Commission and thus eventually, Von der Leyen. 

Nevertheless, key EU leaders are attempting to manage the pandemic as well as they can, despite the lack of vaccines. Regardless of population size, Malta is currently the EU country with the highest percentage of the vaccinated population (7.6 %), followed by Poland with 3.8 %. With regards to the amounts of vaccinations given, Germany is in the lead with more than 8 million given vaccinations.

France is doing relatively well despite the shortage; thanks to its strict curfew regulations and preventive measures, the country has one of the lowest mortality rates in Europe. Although EU countries are far from succeeding in this case, each country is doing the best with what it has. The fact that these countries are managing without Von der Leyen’s success further reduces her legitimacy.

Even though the WHO criticized the EU’s proposal for an export ban, the organization has continuously backed the EU and its efforts. The EU and the WHO have just released a global vaccination campaign with Global Citizen in order to influence the world to get vaccinated. In the launch video, Von der Leyen highlights the fact that the EU wants to donate vaccinations to healthcare workers in Africa. Although the EU needs to vaccinate rather than export, she got good press coverage from this as it adds a “human” and caring aspect to her.

Still, Von der Leyen’s failure to adequately manage the vaccination rollout has triggered real discontent within the European continent and therefore affected her public image. Her reputation revolves around the success of the delivery of vaccinations within the EU.

What is driving Von der Leyen?

Answer: To restore confidence by increasing the amount of bought vaccine doses.

Since public opinion is targeting her as “the one to blame” for the lack of vaccinations, Von der Leyen’s goal is to regain her credibility and legitimacy as a leader. In order to do so, on the 10th of February 2021, Von der Leyen publicly acknowledged the failings of the vaccination rollout: “the fact is that today we are not where we want to be in combating the virus. We were late in granting authorisation. We were too optimistic about mass production. And maybe we also took  for granted that the doses ordered would actually arrive on time.” This was the first time that she admitted to the setbacks.

However, she still continued to defend the EU vaccine strategy by saying that it is normal that the process is slower by explaining that “a country on its own can be a speed boat, the EU is more like a tanker”.  Nevertheless, honesty remains the best policy and the public appreciated the truth. 

Another way Von der Leyen is attempting to restore confidence is through buying more vaccination doses from pharmaceutical companies. Last week, the European Commission decided to purchase 300 million doses more of the Moderna vaccine. Similarly last month, they secured 200 million more doses of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine as well. By doing this, Von der Leyen hopes to not experience a shortage of vaccines in the future again and thus, show to the European public that they have learned from their mistakes. 

Furthermore, Von der Leyen has many goals for the EU. During the EU elections, she created her agenda for Europe. This entailed goals like wanting Europe to be the first climate-neutral continent, and investing in artificial intelligence.  The pandemic is preventing her from achieving these goals. Von der Leyen knows that how she handles the pandemic will define her credibility for her future goals.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: The EU vaccinations will still be delayed. But there will be enough for everyone.

A positive aspect of Von der Leyen’s EU vaccine strategy is that it promotes equal distribution in the sense where every member state whether small or big will have access to the vaccine simultaneously. If this was not the case, all the wealthier EU states would purchase most of the vaccination doses and leave little to the rest of the member states.

Although the EU is not leading the vaccination race yet, Von der Leyen reminds the general public that “the battle against the virus is a marathon and not a sprint”. Even though the pandemic should not be a race, countries are aware that how they handle the pandemic will give their country legitimacy within the world. For example, Netanyahu has been commended for handling the virus to the point where his success is increasing Israel’s geopolitical status. This leaves us with only one question, could biopower become the new geopolitical tool?