President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen arrives at the Europa building in Brussels in December.
CNN  — 

The year is only six weeks old, but 2021 is already revealing the European Union’s inherent limitations.

While the EU is no stranger to crises, the past few weeks have thrown up issues that highlight the chasm between the grand ambition of Brussels and its capability.

Things have been so bad that two of the bloc’s most senior officials have been called on to resign, while serious questions are being asked of the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission.

The most immediate problem is a Covid-19 vaccines scandal. Earlier in the pandemic, Brussels realized that a rush for vaccines could lead to wealthy member states buying huge supplies and poorer nations relying on their charity. It stepped in and secured deals with manufacturers at a better price than individual countries could negotiate.

Most member states were happy with this situation – until the United Kingdom started vaccinating at a faster rate than the EU. The Commission decided to address this by announcing a policy that threatened creating a border on the island of Ireland, risking the return of sectarian violence. Member states – not least EU member Ireland – were furious at not being consulted.

“There had been niggling frustrations at the vaccine rollout. But when the Commission raised the prospect of triggering Article 16, everything blew open,” said Neale Richmond, an Irish government backbencher. “They admitted it was wrong and reversed it, but my god, it damaged the Commission’s authority.”

A European health worker prepares a shot of the coronavirus vaccine.
Frustration in Europe over pace of coronavirus vaccine rollout
02:14 - Source: CNN

Indeed, earlier this week Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was dragged before the European Parliament to explain herself and told to resign multiple times. She admitted to MEPs that the EU had made errors in its procurement of vaccines, saying that they had been “late with the approval” and were “too optimistic on mass production.” She also expressed deep regret for raising concerns over stability in Northern Ireland.

Adding to her pain, her foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, also faced calls to quit after a disastrous visit to Moscow in which the EU was humiliated at a joint press conference with his opposite number, Sergey Lavrov. Borrell had been under pressure not to travel to Moscow just hours after the Russian opposition leader Alexey Navelny was sentenced to more than two years in prison.

Borrell was clearly not prepared for Lavrov’s masterful use of the media, using questions to call the EU an “unreliable partner,” as Brussels’ High Representative said nothing.

“You need to be prepared when you meet with Russian officials. Lavrov got exactly what he wanted: slam the EU, cause a media frenzy and put pressure on Borrell internally,” said Alexander Stubb, the former prime minister of Finland, who is a supporter of Borrell and believes he was correct to travel to Moscow.

Also under fire is the Commission’s claim to defend democracy within the bloc.

On Tuesday, a Budapest court upheld a decision by Hungary’s Media Council to take the country’s last remaining independent radio station off the air. Members of the Media Council are elected by the Hungarian National Assembly, in which Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party has a majority.

The EU’s Commissioner for Human Rights tweeted in horror at Orban’s latest assault on democracy, though, as many have pointed out, tweets don’t impel wannabe autocrats to reverse policy.

Blaming Brussels

A weak Commission invariably means a weak EU. But why is the Commission, which is on paper Europe’s most powerful institution, all over the place?

The precise role of the Commission is a constant source of controversy. Commissioners are put forward by the Council of 27 member states and are then approved by the EU Parliament. In theory, the Commission is a bureaucratic body that is supposed to be held to account by the Parliament. However, as the Commission has grown, it has become political.

“The arrogance of power is paralyzing. This Commission behaves like a government and works with governments of member states, while the Parliament fails to hold them to account,” said Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch MEP. “The fact Borrell and von der Leyen got away with these errors undermines the whole EU.”

The word “arrogance” comes up often when speaking with sources. “On vaccines, they let their own rhetoric on what could be done get out of control. Now anything that goes wrong can be blamed on Brussels, even though rollouts are handled by member states,” explained a former Commission official.

A Commission spokesperson defended their communications around vaccines but accepted that member states are frustrated at the speed of rollouts in Israel and UK. They emphasized, however, that this is very much a competence of individual nations.

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Europe struggles to overcome vaccine shortfall
02:58 - Source: CNN

It is true that nations have varying qualities of health services and some will vaccinate faster than others. However, blaming Brussels is a popular pastime of European governments when things go wrong. The fact the Commission took such an active role in Europe’s vaccine program and is historically terrible at its own PR leaves von der Leyen and her subordinates vulnerable to criticism.

In many policy areas, the Commission has no real authority and can only act in an organizational capacity. The former official adds that “it’s important not to get stuck making grand statements in areas like foreign policy or moral leadership” when in reality, national interests can scupper your whole agenda.

Another criticism of the von der Leyen Commission is that it’s too close to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, Europe’s two most influential leaders.

“She served in Merkel’s cabinet and was proposed for President by Macron, having not bothered campaigning for the job,” said Kati Piri, a Dutch social democrat in the European Parliament. “She only won her approval by nine votes, relying on Orban’s MEPs. How can she possibly be independent when it comes to France, Germany or Hungary?”

While it might be harsh to lay all the blame on von der Leyen, it is true that her Commission is close to the Council, which is a problem for those who think Brussels should act independently in the EU’s interest.

Rich nations rule the roost

The way power works inside the EU Council often perplexes outsiders. On most issues, wealthy nations call the shots.

“When Greece needed bailing out, it was Germany who insisted on austerity. On foreign policy, it is the economic priorities of Germany and France that trump the concerns for human rights when striking deals with China,” said Daniel Kelemen, Jean Monnet Chair in European Union Politics at Rutgers University.

The impact this has on Europe’s foreign policy is significant. “You have 27 member states acting in their national interest, you have diplomats briefing journalists on every statement you make, and have to coordinate foreign policy that doesn’t really exist,” said Stubb, the former Finnish premier.

Piri agreed that “much of our foreign policy is reacting when something bad happens,” but pointed a finger specifically at Berlin and Paris. “With Russia, Turkey and China, we put out statements when there are human rights abuses but underscore the need for economic cooperation. That won’t change so long as the biggest member states put their economies ahead of moral imperative,” she said.

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How UK Muslims and Hindus fight vaccine doubts in their communities
03:07 - Source: CNN

Another odd quirk of the Council is how it provides individual member states with the power to kill certain policies they don’t like. One of the most contentious issues that can be vetoed by one member state is the removal of a nation’s voting rights via what is known as the Article 7 process.

This is where we come back to Hungary. Over the past decade, Orban has assaulted democratic norms by clamping down on press freedom, undermining the judiciary, and censoring universities, amongst other things. The Commission, which talks a big game on the rule of law, has to date done little to significantly reign in Orban.

“When countries like Hungary were in the process of joining the EU, Brussels could use money and other trinkets to build up democratic norms. But once they were in, punishments for backsliding could have implications for other member states, so the EU repeatedly does little to punish bad behavior,” says Daniel Freund, a German MEP.

The problem with article 7 is that it requires unanimity. Poland, another serial offender, will always have Hungary’s back and vice-versa. Earlier this year, the Commission proposed a rule of law mechanism to withhold funds from the EU budget for states violating the rules. But when push came to shove, von der Leyen ceded authority to the Council and, with Merkel, fudged it.

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Elton John and Michael Caine star in vaccine PSA
01:28 - Source: NHS

Whereas the initial plan would have the Commission unilaterally impose the mechanism and only reverse it if the member states voted by qualified majority to do so, the onus is now on the member states to trigger it. All of which means it will probably never happen.

Kelemen believes that the Commission’s reluctance to punish delinquents is a side product of its desire to be more political. “A technocratic Commission could quite easily say ‘you have broken the rules so we are imposing this mechanism.’ A political Commission considers the implications of its actions in a different context.”

The EU is a hybrid ecosystem that when working properly, has an executive branch that drives common policy in areas that make sense. The member states then shape that policy before the European Parliament scrutinizes and approves it.

However, critics believe that as different institutions have sought greater power, the Commission has drifted into a position where it has huge power in the Brussels bubble, but works at the behest of member states, while the Parliament is disrespected and undermined.

Many Europhiles are desperate for reform that makes Europe more fit for purpose. Viewed from the outside, the EU is often seen as a positive project built on an idea of unity after centuries of conflict. Yet many who have taken a closer look believe that as it stands, the EU is a bit of a basket case whose internal power struggles prevent it from being a true global power in the 21st century.

And as the continent tries to navigate pan-European crises at the most challenging moment in the bloc’s history, it’s hard to escape the feeling that no one is really in charge.