The fundamental problems at the heart of the EU

The fundamental problems at the heart of the EU

The fundamental problems at the heart of the EU
Ursula von der Leyen and Stella Kyriakides arrive at the European Parliament for a debate on vaccine strategy, Brussels, Feb. 10, 2021. (AP Photo)
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The EU is facing many challenges. The pandemic continues to rage across most of Europe. Lockdowns and border controls remain in place on much of the continent. More-transmittable mutated variants of the coronavirus have emerged and are complicating matters.
In addition, a resurgent Russia continues to undermine European stability through disinformation and propaganda, coupled with the threat of military force on Europe’s eastern flank. The poisoning and imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, along with Moscow’s support for Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, erodes the rule of law and indirectly undermines the overall stability of the continent.
On the issues of the pandemic and Russia, the European Commission, which is the EU’s executive branch, has not delivered for the people of the continent. The EU’s rollout of coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines and the ill-advised visit of its top diplomat to Moscow last week are the latest examples of this.
Regarding the vaccine rollout, put simply, the union has failed. While the US and the UK began mass vaccination programs in early December, the EU program did not start in any meaningful way until the new year.
The main goal of policymakers across Europe should be to vaccinate as many people as possible, as safely as possible and as quickly as possible — but this has not happened. In fact, this failure has been by design. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, stated in December that she hoped member states could start vaccinations on the same day as “a sign of unity.”
This meant that most of Europe did not start vaccinating people against COVID-19 in any meaningful way until January. Meanwhile the UK — which is now out of the EU and has a population of 66 million compared with the EU’s 445 million — has vaccinated more people than all 27 EU countries combined.
At this point, many in Europe care less about unity than they do about getting their health, jobs and normal way of life back. If a vaccine is safe and available, your average European does not want to wait.
The second crisis the EU is facing is how to deal with Russia. This was best summed up by the lackluster performance of High Representative of the EU Josep Borrell during his visit to Moscow. It was clear that the Spanish diplomat, who was appointed to the EU’s top foreign policy job in 2019 and is also a vice president of the European Commission, was out of his depth during meetings with Russian officials.
The visit also was poorly timed, considering the outrage in Europe over the dubious conviction and imprisonment of Navalny. During a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart, Borrell handed the Kremlin a propaganda victory when he publicly condemned US actions in Cuba without mentioning Russian aggression against Ukraine and Georgia.
Upon his return to Brussels, Borrell was greeted by a storm of criticism from the European Parliament — but the damage was done. Russian President Vladimir Putin respects strength; Borrell looked weak and behaved meekly while in Moscow.
So what can EU member states do to address these two problems? In the case of the pandemic and vaccination programs, some of the bigger countries in the EU are taking matters into their own hands. Germany, for example, has signed contracts with vaccine manufacturers separately from the EU.
Such a move is technically a violation of the European Commission’s vaccination strategy, which requires member states to accept allocation of vaccines based on population sizes and not to engage in bilateral negotiations with companies the EU is negotiating with.
Obviously, such unilateral approaches are not good for unity — but at this point in the pandemic, few people will care about that.
As for Borrell’s embarrassing performance in Moscow, some member states, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, have publicly broken ranks with the European Commission and criticized his visit. While this strong condemnation might send a message to domestic audiences in these countries, it also shows how divided and fractured Europe is when it comes to relations with Russia.
One of Russia’s hybrid warfare techniques is to divide European society and public opinion whenever an opportunity presents itself. You can bet, therefore, that the Kremlin has recognized just how divided the EU is over Borrell’s visit.
However there is very little that can be done right now to fundamentally change the European Commission. It has 27 members, one from each EU member state, and is a supranational body, meaning those members are beyond their states in terms of accountability and jurisdiction.
When individuals are appointed as commissioners, they cut their ties and renounce allegiance to their home countries. Instead, they pledge to work for the good of the EU as a whole. This means, for example, that there is no such thing as “France’s European commissioner.” Instead, there is a European commissioner from France.

Once the dust settles from the pandemic, expect a robust debate about the union’s future.

Luke Coffey

While this might appear good on paper, it rarely works well in practice. There is also little accountability of the European Commission in member states. Individual commissioners cannot be recalled due to poor performance, for example. Only the commission as a whole can be dismissed. Such a move would be politically difficult, if not impossible.
Many in Europe are concerned about Russia’s aggressive nature. And, frankly, the idea of every EU member state waiting to start vaccinating people on the same day for the sake of a show of political unity was crazy.
The fact that the European Commission cannot get these two important issues right says a lot about the disconnect between Brussels and member states. This will have implications going forward.
Once the dust settles from the pandemic, expect a robust debate about the union’s future.

  • Luke Coffey is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey
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