Ursula von der Leyen, the (failed) crisis manager

3 min read

While promises made on the campaign trail get a politician elected, it is the unexpected challenges that give a real test of leadership skills and quick decision making.

Alas, the von der Leyen Commission failed in this regard, as well. And it’s not that they didn’t have enough opportunities to practice.

Nobody could have foreseen (or could they?) the worldwide catastrophe that hit in the form of COVID-19.

The EU, too, was caught completely unprepared. And even worse, during the pandemic, one misguided measure followed the other, yet, when it came to EU-wide decisions that would have really mattered (let it be about buying vaccines, operating borders or vaccination certificates), delay followed delay.

Ursula von der Leyen had enough practice of crisis management and running public procurements while she was at the helm of Germany’s Bundeswehr. She started out with the promise of reforming the notoriously problem-stricken organization.

Under her tenure, the Bundeswehr got plenty of kindergartens, but not much functioning weaponry (anybody remembering the time when German soldiers used broomsticks instead of guns during a NATO exercise?). The buzzwords worth to remember are: controversial hiring practices, lucrative contracts awarded to outside consultants, privileged access, lack of transparency, undisclosed and deleted text messages.

Then, a series of scandals rocked the German army starting from several cases of sexual harassment and bullying to the worst of all accusations of far-right sympathizers within the Bundeswehr (at one point, there were 60 ongoing investigations, one for plotting a racially motivated terror attack).

The splendours fulfilment of her role of defence minister catapulted Ursula von der Leyen to the helm of the European Commission.

Thus, when she faced the first serious crisis, having learned from her previous mistakes, the commission led by her could react quickly and efficiently.  

Fast forward a couple of months and the media is abuzz again with Ursula von der Leyen’s interesting practices. The scandal, what we know today as Pfizergate was unmasked by The New York Times that ran the lengthy article How Europe Sealed a Pfizer Vaccine Deal With Texts and Calls. For those who are unfamiliar with the issue, von der Leyen basically negotiated a €1.8 billion deal with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla via text messages, still undisclosed. Familiar, anybody?

Quite conveniently for von der Leyen, the next hearing in the case was postponed until December 6, well after the European Parliamentary elections.

As if COVID-19 hadn’t been enough, a series of other problems emerged right after it was over.

Russia came first.

Again, despite repeated warnings from the U.S., the EU was caught completely unprepared when Russia launched its assault on Ukraine.

In response, an arsenal of economic sanctions was unleashed, and then, when those proved insufficient, instead of taking a step back to analyse the situation, another set. Then another. Right now, we are at Sanctions Package Nr. 13, with Nr. 14 in the making.

Based on the situation on the ground, it is unlikely that any round of sanctions will force Russia to stop its assault. If anything, it doubled down its efforts.

But every new sanction hurts Europe: energy prices skyrocketed (filling several pockets around the world, not in the least in the U.S.), Ukrainian grains disrupted the European markets (at the same time when the global wheat crisis failed to materialize) and European manufacturers lost billions in the process.

While it is difficult to evaluate the real consequences of economic sanctions (especially so given the interdependent nature of the world), but several experts have warned before that the sanctions are unlikely to work. Others pointed out that the effects of the sanctions are felt differently around Europe, with countries with closer links to Russia bearing the brunt of it. Looking from the Ivory Tower of Brussels, it might not seem to be as bad. Ask the average German about it.

COVID-19, Russia and the deterioration of US-China relations proved to be far too much for the European economy. The Commission’s initiatives have failed to solve the problem or to elevate the EU back to the playing field. Europe is watching from the sidelines as the world changes direction. The dreams of a European strategic “third way” are mostly that only. Dreams.

And so far, the Commission failed to do anything significant about it, yet they still managed to cause another scandal with what they tried.

SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises), that are supposedly the backbones of Europe’s economy (there are about 24 million of them and those represent 99 percent of all businesses of the EU, providing 2 out of every 3 jobs) and are in dire need of some help.

Falling back to old habits, Ursula von der Leyen quickly appointed MEP Markus Pieper as EU envoy for SMEs. Well, it didn’t take long that accusations of lack of transparency, favouritism, personal intervention and “bypassing the recommendations of the person who was responsible for judging the most suitable candidate” appeared. Familiar again, isn’t it so?

If one is to believe the projections the world will face a few tough years before it can start to turn for the better (if it will). It would be time to think about who should lead the EU in times of crises? Unless, of course, it is deemed to be enough to face challenges with broomsticks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This website uses cookies to provide user authentication. Please indicate whether you consent to our site placing cookies on your device and agree with our Privacy Policy. To find out more, please read our Privacy and Cookie Policy