Matthew Lynn

Ursula von der Leyen has broken the first rule of leadership

Ursula von der Leyen has broken the first rule of leadership
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Valdis Dombrovskis could probably do without his moment in the limelight. His spell as prime minister of Latvia, a country with a population of 1.9 million, was largely successful, at least until the collapse of a supermarket roof in 2014 brought his coalition to an early end. 

Shunted off to Brussels, he worked quietly as commission vice-president for the euro and social dialogue

– nope, I don’t know what the heck that means either – before being promoted to the slightly more important trade portfolio last year. Now it turns out he is responsible for what is rapidly turning into the biggest policy catastrophe in Europe since the Second World War, at least according to his boss.

With every day that passes, the EU’s vaccines catastrophe gets worse and worse. The continent still lags woefully behind the accelerating programmes in the UK, the United States and Israel. Even tiny states on the borders of the EU, such as Serbia, helped by generous supplies from China, are racing ahead of the EU. 

Valneva, the French firm with the latest promising vaccine, had to explain yesterday that the UK had ordered plenty of supplies, while the EU had yet to even sign a letter of intent. Meanwhile, the EU's war with AstraZeneca has left it reliant on a company that is probably sick of the sight of it by now.

The president of the EU commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has decided that someone has to take the blame for that, and the hapless Dombrovskis appears to have drawn the short straw. In briefings over the weekend, the EU argued that vaccine strategy, and export controls, were largely a matter for the trade commissioner, and he would have to answer for any mistakes that were made. 

Meanwhile, VdL is rapidly deflecting blame elsewhere. In an interview with Le Monde she attempted to argue that comparisons with other countries were meaningless because the EU was ahead of its own targets (because, er, it is good to set your own yardsticks) and because the UK took unacceptable risks (although the European Medicines Agency has authorised exactly the same vaccines).

Not everyone thinks that this finger pointing is a great idea. Alexander Stubb, the former prime minister of Finland who sought to become the commission president in 2019, tweeted

'Number one rule of any leader: if your organisation screws up; never, ever blame your team publicly. When the shit hits the fan, you take it. After that, discuss with your team privately about what happened and how you can improve the situation together.'

Very true. As her career in Berlin politics has made clear, VdL is good at shifting the blame for the trail of disasters she leaves in her wake. The trouble is, that is not going to work with the vaccine catastrophe forever. Sooner or later VdL will have to take ownership of the fiasco – and at that moment, Brussels politics is going to get very interesting.

Written byMatthew Lynn

Matthew Lynn is a financial columnist and author of ‘Bust: Greece, The Euro and The Sovereign Debt Crisis’ and ‘The Long Depression: The Slump of 2008 to 2031’

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Topics in this articlePoliticsbrexitvaccinecovid-19