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Ursula von der Leyen did the right thing last week after she’d tried everything else. The European Commission president finally apologized for the failings of the continent-wide vaccine procurement scheme.
It followed an unseemly few weeks of battle over the vaccine, during which Von der Leyen scapegoated the Anglo-Swedish pharma company AstraZeneca Plc for supply holdups and threatened to close the Irish land border to imports of vaccines from the European Union. Even Brussels, which is loath to admit fault, finally conceded that its vaccine rollout has been unsatisfactory.
It’s an admission that reveals deeper problems in institutional Europe. Bluntly, the EU isn’t as effective as it likes to think it is in many policy areas where it took over responsibility from member states.
It has also lost two opportunities to lord it over others in recent months. One is Brexit, which — while still disruptive — ended in a trade deal rather than the unregulated chaos threatened by its most vociferous opponents. Another is Donald Trump, that willful exemplar of bad faith and anti-liberal politics, who’s fallen from power.
The net effect is that the EU can no longer shine on the global stage by virtue of contrast with wicked Trump and blundering Boris Johnson. Brussels is meant to work well on many fronts, but it doesn’t and electorates are taking notice.
The world’s largest economic bloc is proving erratic as a champion of democracy, too. It has vast reserves of soft power, but rarely deploys them. Under its largely German leadership, it has difficulty combining commercial realpolitik with its stated aim of advocating for pluralism and encouraging democracy in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.
The immunization debacle had a sorry aftermath. On a visit to Moscow earlier this week, Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, was all smiles as he praised Russia’s Covid vaccine, Sputnik V. It may have been necessitated by the EU’s possible future shortages but the timing was awful. Alexei Navalny, the dissident leader who survived a military-grade poisoning, was being dragged out of prison to face more trumped-up charges.
Vladimir Putin understands propaganda better than his European counterparts and gave Borrell a public dressing down. At a joint press conference, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, sneered that the EU wasn’t “a reliable partner.” The Brussels representative learned from his Twitter feed that three European diplomats were being expelled from Moscow for appearing at demonstrations supporting Navalny.
There are plenty of other failures in diplomatic muscularity to pick over. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s head of state, hardly helped when he defended construction work on a Russian gas pipeline beneath the Baltic, Nord Stream 2, on the grounds that his country owes Moscow a debt of guilt for the sins of World War II.
Alas, this deal has losers as well as winners. Ukrainians will be deprived of transit payments from the current land-based pipeline (and are deeply unhappy about any downplaying of their own losses in World War II). Other Eastern European democracies fear Putin is getting the means to cut off their gas without hurting his rich German client. Despite her upbringing in East Germany, which makes her more wary of the Russians than her Social Democrat coalition partners, Angela Merkel has opted for commercial advantage.
It’s not just Russia. The chancellor and Von der Leyen also handed President Joe Biden a nasty surprise as he prepared to take office by announcing an investment agreement with China. What will Trump’s replacement see when he looks at this muddled Europe?
While avoiding Trump’s tub-thumping, Biden aims to continue “extreme competition” with Beijing and to hold it accountable for human rights violations. Merkel, echoed by France’s Emmanuel Macron, makes clear she won’t join any new Cold War against Beijing and warns against dividing the world into competing blocs. China is Germany’s biggest export market for cars.
This all changes some of the diplomatic geometry between the U.S., EU and Britain. Biden disapproves of Brexit and had no contact with Prime Minister Johnson when the latter was the U.K.’s foreign secretary, but the new president has been forced to fall back on his country’s traditional ally for moral and diplomatic support. In a crunch, only the British and the other Anglosphere countries of Australia, Canada and New Zealand have stood up to Beijing.
The paradox is that Merkel talks the global liberal talk while acting purely in German interests — whereas Johnson sounds like a loudmouthed populist but has walked the walk on Chinese human-rights violations. He is stripping Huawei Technologies Co.’s equipment from Britain’s telecoms networks and he’s offered Hong Kong residents a path to U.K. citizenship after China’s crackdown on the democracy movement.
The EU is both a commercial trading bloc and a “values” community. There’s a tension here. Von der Leyen says she wants to lead a “geopolitical Commission.” The gap between aspiration and reality is becoming dangerously wide. After Merkel retires in the autumn a new generation of leaders will need to choose more clearly how it sets about this role. Europe won’t have Brexit and Trump to hide behind.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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James Boxell at email@example.com