Ursula von der Leyen has always left a trail of disaster

31 January 2021

11:29 PM

31 January 2021

11:29 PM

The German Army had to join a NATO exercise with broomsticks because they didn’t have any rifles. It’s special forces became a hotbed for right-wing extremism. Working mothers were meant to get federally-funded childcare, to help fix the country’s demographic collapse, but it never arrived, and the birth rate carried on falling. Every child was supposed to get a hot lunch at school every day, but somehow or other it didn’t quite happen. There is a common thread running through the career of Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission. A series of catastrophic misjudgements, and a failure to deliver.

In a brutal examination of her record this weekend, the influential German news magazine Spiegel concluded that VdL, as they refer to her in Berlin, was good at only one thing: evading responsibility for a series of disasters as family minister, labour and social affairs minister and then defence minister. ‘She always acted as if she would do everything different – better – than her predecessor. It frequently sounded as though von der Leyen planned to reinvent whatever department or ministry she had just assumed control of, making it more functional and glamorous at the same time,’ argued Spiegel. ‘By the time it became necessary to dive into the sordid details she had usually moved on.’

That analysis has a lot of truth in it. As family minister she was appointed by Angela Merkel to restore the nation’s fertility. But the dazzling array of policies never arrived. At the social affairs ministry a plan for hot lunches went wrong. And most spectacularly, as defence minister she presided over a series of procurement scandals that left the Bundeswehr – not an organisation ever noted for its sense of humour – furious. Her successor is still struggling to put these mistakes right. Through it all, VdL sailed serenely on, deflecting criticism from herself.

VdL was in lots of ways a perfect appointment as President of the European Commission. She is good at grand promises, pledges of unity, and commitments to diversity. The problem comes when it’s actually time to deliver. At three major ministries in Berlin, she stumbled from one disaster to another. The vaccine debacle unfolding across the continent won’t have come as any surprise to those who have followed her career. When it came to buying vaccines, the Commission was too late, too chaotic, and too stingy. But when the problems emerged, VdL disappeared, and then tried to pin the blame on someone else: in this case first AstraZeneca, for failing to deliver supplies on time, and then on the British, for investing more, and earlier. ‘It is, to put it bluntly, a pattern that has occurred frequently throughout her career,’ concluded Spiegel.

The only question is whether that will work with the vaccine row. So far, true to form, she is evading responsibility. It is noticeable there has been no press conference from VdL, even on the seismic step of export controls on vaccines.

Hot lunches, and broomsticks are one thing. This debacle will cost thousands of lives. It should be no surprise to anyone that VdL has made a mess of this. The only question is whether she can keep getting away with it.

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