It has not been a good time for EC President Ursula von der Leyen with the fallout from the Northern Ireland protocol error continuing into a second week
Ever since her surprise arrival in Brussels in the summer of 2019, Ursula von der Leyen, has been known by her initials, VDL.
We know the initials phenomenon from the cross-over with US politics: Ireland’s own beloved JFK, his successor Lyndon Johnson, widely known as LBJ, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was dubbed FDR.
But it applies in other languages too when the political kingpin’s name is a clumsy mouthful, thus rendering recently-deceased ex-French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing as VGE, and another Gallic politician, Dominique Strauss Kahn, becoming universally notorious as DSK.
So, the patrician German politician embraced the chummy initials as she campaigned to get necessary confirmation in her post as EU Commission President via the gruelling ratification process in the European Parliament. She had arrived as an embattled German defence minister, who was acceptable to the French, and heavily promoted by her Berlin patron, Angela Merkel.
VDL rather scraped the bar getting over the European Parliament ratification hurdle to formally take up her post in December 2019. Weeks later she was stumbling through the EU’s very diffuse initial response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
But things just got better and better as she got the backing of Paris and Berlin for the biggest ever Brussels budget worth a total of €1.8trn. There was a decent sum for post-Covid recovery plans; a first ever permission for the EU to use its leverage to borrow on world markets; and a strategy to provide vaccines for all EU member states.
Then things began to go wrong. A major error on the Brexit Northern Ireland protocol just 11 days ago saw her stock, inside the EU and without, nosedive.
As a new week advanced, the prestigious Brussels news service Politico was citing VDL as standing for “Very Damaged Leader”. It has not been a good time for her with the fallout continuing deep into its second week.
This is despite a complete about-turn, just hours after her initial calamitous decision on January 29 to temporarily suspend Northern Ireland’s special trade status as part of the EU vaccine supply row.
She got a private chastising last week from leaders of the main European Parliament groups after the debacle which gave a political gain to UK Brexiteers and proponents of “vaccine nationalism”. On Thursday, she has to face the 27 EU leaders, including Taoiseach Micheál Martin, at an online leaders’ summit.
The reality is she has to explain how she set out to allay a Covid supply crisis in a row with pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, but wound up making everything worse by fomenting a Brexit row over the Irish Border.
Ms von der Leyen lacks allies right now for a number of reasons – not least because the scent of crisis and failure tends to alienate the more self-seeking people. But even her more benign critics fear she has authored some of her own problems by not including more people and groups from the strange beast that is the “Brussels machine” in her decision-making ambit.
It is widely acknowledged that her decision on the Northern Irish Border did not involve any kind of meaningful consultation with those close to the marathon Brexit talks – much less Irish officials in Brussels.
Moves are now afoot to put structures in place to avoid a repeat in future politically sensitive decisions, not just for Ireland, but for all member states. In a much smaller EU this happened almost automatically – now it must be provided for.