Ursula von der Leyen was sitting in her transformed flat subsequent to her workplace within the EU’s palatial HQ in Berlaymont when the cellphone began ringing.
It was Friday night, round 9.20pm, and on the road was the British Prime Minister.
Boris Johnson was demanding to know why the EU had invoked Article 19 of the Northern Eire Brexit protocol, successfully blocking imports of Covid vaccines by way of the Irish Republic to the UK.
At 9.50pm – about half an hour after the decision had concluded – Quantity 10 issued a damning account of that decision, saying that the PM “expressed his grave issues concerning the potential affect which the steps the EU has taken as we speak on vaccine exports may have”.
An hour after their name – round 10.30pm London time – Mrs Von der Leyen known as again making clear to Mr Johnson that the EU wouldn’t disrupt vaccine provides into the UK.
Quantity 10 pressured there have been no raised voices on the calls, nevertheless it was a torrid finish to what had been a dreadful few days for the EU – days had seen the Fee accused of making an attempt to bully the UK and medicines corporations into giving up Britain’s share of treasured vaccines.
Mr Johnson and his staff in London had caught wind of the Fee’s plans earlier final week, however selected to undertake a low key method, arranging for a name between Matt Hancock, the Well being secretary, and his counterpart in Brussels on Wednesday.
By Friday morning the talks had “gone up a notch” and the rising disaster was mentioned on the Prime Minister’s 8.30am assembly in Quantity 10.
Though officers had been gaming what the Fee may do and the way the UK would reply the response from the Fee to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Eire protocol nonetheless got here as a shock.
Following a gathering between Mr Johnson and his senior officers Quantity 10 made public the issues in London, saying they didn’t anticipate the EU – a “good friend and ally” – would do “something to disrupt the fulfilment of those contracts.”
Mr Johnson determined to name Micheal Martin, the Irish Prime Minister, to debate the Fee’s actions. Once more issues about peace in Northern Eire had been raised and the PM pressured the UK’s enduring dedication to the Belfast/Good Friday settlement.
Mr Johnson then phoned Mrs von der Leyen.
By now the warnings about threats to the Good Friday Settlement had been heard in Washington DC, the place sources stated the White Home was urgently making an attempt to make clear what the transfer would imply.
Within the face of such uncooked anger and rising worldwide concern, Brussels backed down.
Simply earlier than midnight UK time on Friday Ms Von der Leyen posted a message on Twitter saying she agreed with Mr Johnson to not add restrictions to vaccine exports.
It was per week that started very in another way. Brussels had been decided to pressure AstraZeneca to its knees. It ended, nonetheless, with the European Union humiliated.
Mrs von der Leyen was dealing with calls to resign on Saturday, and fierce criticism in her dwelling nation of Germany.
It was after all of the Fee President who, having taken private cost of the AstraZeneca difficulty, and was now seen to have badly botched the response to the pharmaceutical firm’s failure to fulfil EU orders of jabs.
By transferring to impose a “vaccine border” on the island of Eire she was seen as having trashed the bloc’s repute worldwide and sacrificed the ethical excessive floor the Fee had taken over the Irish border throughout the Brexit negotiations.
Her determination to set off Article 16 of the Brexit treaty’s Northern Irish protocol, achieved the as soon as unimaginable feat of uniting an unimpressed Michel Barnier, Irish prime minister Micheál Martin and Boris Johnson in opposition to her.
Mrs von der Leyen might have ordered a U-Flip late on Friday and blamed the disaster on “an oversight”, however the injury was executed.
It ought to have been very totally different. Brussels had deliberate for the primary AstraZeneca jabs to be rolled out throughout the bloc as soon as the European Medicines Company accepted the vaccine on Friday.
The European Fee, which negotiated the provides on behalf of the 27 member states, would use the supply as an emblem of the advantages of EU unity.
The inconvenient undeniable fact that the EU’s vaccination roll-out was lagging far behind Brexit Britain would quickly be forgotten in a flood of as much as 400 million jabs; sufficient to vaccinate about half of all EU residents.
The day couldn’t come quickly sufficient for the EU’s heads of state and authorities, who had determined to not use the emergency authorisation procedures Britain used to fast-track the approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Commissioners in Brussels sneered that this was a safer, extra accountable route than that taken by Boris Johnson.
Many EU governments had chosen to not purchase doses of rival vaccines, preferring to attend for the cheaper and simpler to retailer jab from the British-Swedish firm.
The slower tempo was, nonetheless, exacting a political worth on the bloc’s nationwide leaders.
Polls in France confirmed Marine Le Pen trailing Emmanuel Macron by simply 48 to 52 in second spherical voting intentions for subsequent yr’s presidential elections.
Whereas the UK has distributed 11.86 jab doses per 100 folks, France, the place anti-vax beliefs have taken root, has solely managed 2.08.
European newspapers had been reporting that Mr Johnson’s vaccine gamble had paid off, which they stated was a supply of nice frustration to the French.
Maybe that’s what motivated Mr Macron to trash the AstraZeneca vaccine, saying it was “virtually ineffective for these over 65, and a few say over 60”.
The cynical ploy got here on Friday, the identical day that the European Medicines Authority accepted the vaccine for all ages, regardless of an earlier determination by German regulators to limit it to the over 65s.
The German authorities was additionally dealing with questions on why it was lagging to this point behind the UK, US and Israel.
The pressure was exhibiting elsewhere in Europe as nicely. The usually docile Dutch erupted into days of rioting, their worst in 40 years.
The Italian authorities was tearing itself aside over the dealing with of the second coronavirus wave. On Tuesday, Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte resigned as his coalition authorities collapsed.
The stress was on the European Fee to ship, which explains the livid response after AstraZeneca broke the information that there can be a shortfall within the provide.
The corporate would solely be capable of ship 1 / 4 of the jabs promised within the first quarter of the yr, it stated. There can be about 75 million vaccines lacking due to manufacturing issues at its Belgian plant.
Mrs von der Leyen was decided that the member states wouldn’t level the finger of blame for the delays at her fee and so the choice was made to launch a full frontal, and unprecedented, assault on AstraZeneca.
Suspicions grew in Brussels that AstraZeneca might have offered reserved EU vaccine inventory to international locations similar to Britain, which they claimed had paid the next worth for the jab.
Even supposing AstraZeneca was offering the vaccine at value worth, the story was given legs by the Brussels spin machine. Their message was clear; this was not our fault.
Diplomats from the EU’s capitals within the Belgian capital started circulating information tales from final yr, when the UK signed a take care of AstraZeneca first.
AstraZeneca had imported thousands and thousands of vaccines from its EU vegetation to compensate for a delay in manufacturing of UK provides of the jab. Maybe these had been jabs meant for the bloc, the nameless briefers steered.
The fee, which prides itself on its authorized experience and respect for the rule of regulation, turned the screws on AstraZeneca, accusing it of breaching its contract with Brussels.
Mrs von der Leyen gave Pascal Soriot, the CEO of AstraZeneca, a dressing down in a morning cellphone name. It was the primary of three grillings for the boss, who was summoned to additional two video convention conferences with the EU and nationwide officers later that day.
Then Stella Kyriakides, the European commissioner for well being and meals security, dropped a bombshell. Brussels would introduce an “export transparency mechanism” by the top of the week, Ms Kyriakides stated.
Cyprus’s EU commissioner stated that producers within the EU must ask Brussels for permission earlier than exporting vaccines out of the bloc.
The specter of an EU export ban was clear. Britain, lower than a month out of the Brexit transition interval and anticipating virtually 3.5 million vaccines from Pfizer’s Belgian plant, was within the firing line.
It was the primary of many indicators that, so far as the fee was involved, British public opinion of Brussels merely not mattered.
On Tuesday, AstraZeneca’s CEO hit again. There was no contractual obligation to provide the vaccines past an obligation on the corporate to make “greatest affordable efforts” to supply it, he stated.
The corporate’s two manufacturing vegetation in Britain may assist with the EU provide however, underneath the phrases of the provision contract with the UK, solely after a British order of 100 million jabs had been provided.
An infuriated Brussels hit again arduous on Wednesday. It demanded that AstraZeneca divert provides of thousands and thousands of UK-manufactured vaccines to the bloc and accused Mr Soriot of breaching confidentiality by revealing particulars of the contract.
Ms Kyriakides stated the agency had “contractual, societal and ethical obligations” to make use of all its services to make up the shortfall, and that there was “no hierarchy of factories”.
MEPs started to speak of a vaccine commerce warfare until the pharma firm caved to the calls for. In the meantime Mr Johnson was wanting like the one grownup within the room.
On Thursday, Belgian authorities, appearing on a European Fee request, raided AstraZeneca’s plant within the French-speaking area in Wallonia.
The rationale was to see if the corporate’s rationalization of manufacturing issues was real however one other motivation was to maintain the stress on the corporate.
Having secured AstraZeneca’s permission to launch a redacted model of its contract with the EU, Mrs von der Leyen had a salvo deliberate for Friday.
After the contract was launched, the fee pointed to clauses it claimed supported its arguments.
In a single, AstraZeneca appeared to substantiate that no different settlement would intervene with its provides. One other clause stated that, for the needs of the deal, the 2 UK factories needs to be thought-about a part of the EU.
However eyebrows had been raised as Mrs von der Leyen had, that very day, stated there have been no “greatest endeavours” clauses within the contract. The printed deal, which in one other signal the wheels had been coming off, was unintentionally launched unredacted. It had these clauses.
She both advised an intentional mislead 447 million folks or she did not know what was in her personal contract, Germany’s Bild Zeitung stated on Saturday.
As EU officers demanded Britain publish its contract with the pharma firm, there was rising disquiet amongst some member states the fee was going too far.
However regardless of the warnings of her personal commerce consultants over the triggering of Article 16, Mrs von der Leyen was set on imposing the arduous vaccine border on the island of Eire.
Among the many voices arguing in opposition to the transfer was Sabine Weyand, the EU’s prime official on commerce and former deputy Brexit negotiator. She was the girl who designed the Irish border backstop throughout the Brexit talks, which was finally ditched in favour of a regulatory and customs border within the Irish Sea.
In an astonishing gaffe, Mrs von der Leyen solely knowledgeable Eire she was triggering some of the delicate clauses within the Brexit Withdrawal Settlement after the announcement.
She additionally didn’t give discover to Britain concerning the transfer, which was meant to forestall Northern Eire changing into a backdoor entry of vaccine provides to the UK.
Contemplating that the European Fee had spent the earlier 4 years preaching the significance of open borders and peace on the island of Eire, in addition to criticising any suggestion from Britain of utilizing the clause, it was an astonishing transfer.
It wasn’t lengthy earlier than each the Irish and British prime ministers had been on the cellphone to Mrs von der Leyen, each urging a change of tack.
So it was that at 11.45pm native time, about eight hours after the announcement, an announcement was launched saying that Article 16 , the so-called safeguard clause, wouldn’t be triggered in any case.
What Mrs von der Leyen deliberate as a present of energy and a reassertion of management had demonstrated something however.
The European press was unforgiving, describing it because the “Brexit personal objective” and doubtlessly Mrs von der Leyen’s biggest failure.
As one EU diplomat advised the Telegraph: “The stress on von der Leyen is big and rising. This isn’t a superb look.”
The query for Britain this weekend is how will Mr Johnson use the ethical excessive floor he has gained within the row over vaccine provides, maybe to enhance Brexit relations with Brussels?
One Authorities supply stated: “There’s a window of alternative and we wish to work collectively, we would like issues to get higher.”