Creeping censorship, corruption, authoritarianism, economic decline and support for war: these are five of the defining characteristics of the Von der Leyen era. Is it any wonder that internal opposition is on the rise?
“Europe will always be on the side of humanity and human rights.”
That was the message Ursula von der Leyen, the embattled President of the European Commission, sent in an internal Commission memo on Monday (Oct 24). Von der Leyen (whom I shall henceforth refer to as VdL) may somehow believe those words — after all, the Commission she fronts did pick up the “World Price for Peace and Freedom” just four months ago, even as it escalated its involvement in the Ukraine conflict as well as its largely self-maiming economic sanctions on Russia — but many of the staffers working for the Commission apparently do not.
In fact, VdL’s latest message of peace and love was widely construed as a desperate response to a barrage of internal criticism unleashed last week against her unbridled support for Israel and her “apparent indifference” toward the “massacre of civilians in the Gaza Strip.” To make matters worse, VdL was effectively breaching her mandate as president of the Commission when she made these comments. In a letter that accumulated 842 signatures, staff members of EU institutions accused VdL of giving “a free hand to the acceleration and the legitimacy of a war crime in the Gaza Strip”.
After roundly condemning Hamas’ “terroristic (sic) attack” against “helpless Israeli civilians, the loss of life and the taking of hostages,” the letter squarely took aim at VdL’s unabashed support for Israel’s war aims, which, as Yves recently averred, appear to consist of making Gaza uninhabitable:
“We equally strongly condemn the disproportionate reaction by the Israeli government against 2.3 million Palestinian civilians trapped in the Gaza Strip; an action that is considered by many observers as war crime (sic)… Notably, we are concerned by the unconditional support by the Commission you represent for one of the two points. This support is being expressed in an uncontrolled manner, e.g. EC buildings lit up with the Israeli flag.
We hardly recognise the values of the EU in the seeming indifference demonstrated over the past few days by our Institution toward the ongoing massacre of civilians in the Gaza Strip, in disregard for human rights and international humanitarian law. We have just learnt that a hospital was bombed with many casualties. According to UNRWA statements, not a drop of water, not a grain of wheat, not a litre of fuel has been allowed into Gaza since the start of the Israeli operation, generating an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.”
The letter warns that the EU is “losing all credibility” as well as its status “as a fair, equitable and humanist broker” while also damaging its international relations and risking the safety of EU staff. As if that were not enough, the letter also rips into VdL’s “patent” double standards over what is currently unfolding in Palestine and the events of the past 20 months in Ukraine. A perfect case in point: in October 2022, VdL tweeted the following message:
Russia’s attacks against civilian infrastructure, especially electricity, are war crimes.
Cutting off men, women, children of water, electricity and heating with winter coming – these are acts of pure terror.
And we have to call it as such.
By contrast, as the letter notes, VdL “completely ignore[s]” the almost identical actions taken by Israel against the Gazan people. In a speech last Thursday at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington, she prioritized Israel’s right to defend itself after Hamas’ assault on October 7 while neglecting even to mention the two-state solution that forms a core part of many European countries’ position on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
One of the best critiques of VdL’s position on the conflict has come from Irish MEP Claire Daly. As she says, “she has no authority in foreign affairs matters” and “does not speak for the citizens of Europe”:
Now, VdL is trying to undo some of the damage she has caused, without changing her position much. In the internal message she sent out on Monday morning, to which the Spanish daily La Vanguardia has had access, she says the Commission regrets the loss of “all innocent lives in this conflict, of all faiths and nationalities” and claims that its services have been working “from the beginning of the crisis” to alleviate the suffering of “ALL” those affected by the indiscriminate terrorist attacks, both by showing solidarity with Israel and by tripling humanitarian aid to Gaza and supporting the creation of an air bridge to Egypt.
As La Vanguardia notes, those last two measures were announced last week by the EU’s executive branch after a week of intense criticism of VdL’s statements of support for the Israeli Government, which initially did not even include the condition that Israel’s response to the brutal Hamas attack, which left 1,400 dead, must be “in accordance to international and humanitarian law”.
For VdL, the damage may already be done. After all, it is not just EU officials that are bridling at her one-sided support for Israel. Most notably, she has been openly criticized by both the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and the Irish President Michael D Higgins for her unqualified support for Israel. As NC reader Plutonium Kim notes in the comments below, “Varadkar is part of the same centre right grouping (EPP) who put Von der Leyen into power in the first place – he would not have made those statements without sounding out other EPP leaders.”
Some EU capitals are apparently “fum[ing]” at “Queen” VdL’s go-it alone approach to EU foreign policy, according to a piece published by POLITICO Europe last week.
Several [European diplomats] told POLITICO they were unhappy that von der Leyen, who voiced solidarity with the victims of the Hamas attacks, had not relayed their calls for Israel to respect international law in Gaza during her trip.
The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, even dared to issue a rare public rebuke of his boss. Von der Leyen, he said, is not entitled to represent EU views on foreign policy, which are normally coordinated between member countries.
“The official position of the European Union with any foreign policy [issue] is being fixed — I repeat — by the guidelines,” Borrell told journalists in Beijing on Saturday. Foreign policy is decided by the leaders of the EU’s 27 countries at international summits, and discussed by foreign ministers in meetings “chaired by me,” he added.
One unnamed diplomat cited by the POLITICO Europe piece said VdL “has been increasingly behaving like a Queen,” failing to consult EU capitals properly before making important policy decisions. The examples mentioned include a deal VdL oversaw to give the President of Tunisia Kais Saied more than €1 billion to help manage irregular migration as well as her recent announcement of an investigation into Chinese subsidies for electric vehicles. The article also mentions similar murmurings of disquiet over her role in the Ukraine conflict:
“We saw the same thing with the sanctions announcements, or on most Ukraine-related issues: She doesn’t discuss this with a lot of people, she just decides,” said a Commission official granted anonymity to discuss internal matters.
The official continued: “She has grabbed the power in the pandemic and she has [clung] to it. Nobody is really disputing it, also because her track record is very positive. The downside of it is that some things stay undecided for a very long time.”
The words “very positive” in that second paragraph, to describe VdL’s overall track record as president of the EU’s most powerful institution, are, to put it mildly, eye catching. After all, during that time, Europe’s two major industrial economies, Germany and Italy, have stalled and are going through the painful process of deindustrialisation, largely (but not exclusively) due to the surge in energy prices caused by the Ukraine conflict and the US and Europe’s sanctions on Russia, which appear to have inflicted more harm on Europe’s economy than Russia’s.
That’s not to say that VdL is solely responsible for the EU’s self-inflicted economic harm; it has been very much a collective effort. But it did happen on her watch and she has certainly had a hand to play in the ever-escalating sanctions on Russia.
Then there was the EU’s COVID-19 vaccine procurement disaster that VdL’s Commission directly oversaw. Having allowed vaccine negotiations to drag on for months, between late 2020 and early 2021, the Commission found itself drastically short of supplies. As the pressure on von der Leyen increased, the Commission took the decision to halt all vaccine exports from the EU. In doing so, it closed the Northern Irish border — something it had said it would never do. It was only after protests from the governments in London and Dublin, neither of whom had been consulted on the matter, that the Commission backed down.
None of this should have come as much of a surprise given the litany of procurement debacles and scandals that plagued VdL’s six-year term as Germany’s Defence Minister, as recounted in a blistering 2021 article in Foreign Policy, mercilessly titled “The Aristocratic Ineptitude of Ursula Von Der Leyen“:
Von der Leyen held the post as defense minister from 2013 to 2019, a remarkable run considering her inexperience. But when things came crashing down, they came crashing down quickly—and exposed a slew of mismanagement, incompetence, and potential corruption. The scandal is usually called the “consultant affair” due to the untold hundreds of millions of dollars von der Leyen and her chief deputy Katrin Suder paid to consultants who were responsible for helping to determine how the military should spend its substantial armaments budget…
The Gorch Fock, a sailing ship—with sails!—the German Navy used for training was docked for repairs in 2015, briefly before von der Leyen assumed office. The estimated cost was $11.6 million. When she left office in 2019, the estimated cost of repairing the training vessel had risen to $163 million. The mission-critical components of von der Leyen’s armament expenditures fared even worse. In 2017, according to N-TV, 97 new weapons systems were delivered to the Bundeswehr. Only 38 were functional.
Creeping Corruption and Authoritarianism
If the European Commission’s vaccine procurement disaster was bad, it pales in comparison with what came after, which also had VdL’s fingerprints all over it. In April 2021, VdL personally negotiated a deal with Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla to buy up to 1.8 billion doses of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine — enough to “inoculate” (something the mRNA vaccines never really did) all of the EU’s 450 million citizens, including children and babies, four times over — for a reputed €36 billion.
This was on top of the billions of vaccines the Commission had already ordered from Pfizer-BioNtech and other manufacturers. In total, the Commission signed vaccine supply agreements for up to 4.6 billion vaccine doses (I’ll let readers do the math!). The EU’s “Green Pass” vaccine passport system, which coincidentally shares the same name as Israel’s system and which the World Health Organization has said will be used as a model to establish a global digital health certificate, helped to ensure there was healthy demand for the vaccines, at least in the first year of their rollout.
Now that most people realise that the mRNA vaccines are neither as safe nor as effective as they were initially marketed, demand for them has collapsed, leaving governments around the continent with untold hundreds of millions of unwanted doses on their hands. Germany alone is on track to destroy 200 million doses this year. But at the same time, EU Member States must continue to buy hundreds of millions more of the Pfizer-BioNtech mRNA vaccines until 2028, thanks to a renegotiated deal the Commission reached with Pfizer and BioNtech in May, the details of which it has also refused to make public.
As readers well know, VdL has been accused of destroying all of her communications with Bourla — a charge she neither admits not denies. In fact, she refuses to discuss the matter in public at all. Like Bourla, she refused to give testimony to the European Parliament’s inquiry into the Commission’s COVID-19 response. In the meantime, the New York Times has sued the Commission for failing to release the text messages and the European Public Prosecutor’s Office has launched investigations into the Commission’s vaccine procurement practices.
Even more of a threat than the EU’s creeping corruption under VdL is its creeping authoritarianism. While VdL may insist that “Europe will always be on the side of humanity and human rights,” the Commission she fronts has declared a global fatwa on freedom of expression on the Internet through its highly controversial Digital Services Act (DSA), which is already being used to stifle the free exchange of information on social media platforms, not just in Europe but across the world.
In one of the most Orwellian statements of recent times, for which the bar has been set vertiginously high, Thierry Breton, the European Commission for the Internal Market, said the actual purpose of the DSA is to “protect free speech against arbitrary decisions.” The Associated Press describes the act as cementing the EU’s position as “a global leader in reining in Big Tech.” Less than two months after becoming operational, the DSA is already being put to use to smother the spread of (in the Commission’s words) “incorrect, incomplete, or misleading” information about the war in the Middle East.
We’re bringing our European values into the digital world.
With strict rules on transparency and accountability, our Digital Services Act aims to protect our children, societies and democracies.
As of today, very large online platforms must apply the new law.
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) August 25, 2023
Above is the tweet with which VdL launched the DSA in all its censorial glory back in mid-August. In response, Martin Sonneborn, a German MEP, satirical journalist and regular thorn in VdL’s side flagged the message up as “fake content” and “misleading disinformation” to the relevant EU regulatory and control authorities, arguing that it “significantly fuels hatred of the EU and is therefore likely to endanger social peace in Europe”. From Berliner Zeitung (machine translated):
Von der Leyen must be held accountable for her official actions, said Sonneborn. Firstly, because she violates Articles 41 (right to good administration) and 42 (right of access to documents) of the Charter; secondly, because she violates the last article of the Charter, which prohibits abuse of rights:
“When we looked through all 54 articles of fundamental rights of the European Union, set out in the Charter of the same name, we struggled to find an article that had not been violated by the von der Leyen Commission.”
“After a four-year study of their official conduct, things come to mind that, by the most normal interpretation of the EU Charter, are clear violations of fundamental rights — especially with regard to Article 41, ‘Right to good administration’ (Lol!), and Article 42, ‘Right of access to documents, regardless of the form of medium used for these documents’, which of course expressly includes intimate short message exchanges with pharmaceutical bosses via SMS.”
“With the introduction of the DSA by the von der Leyen Commission, in addition to a number of secondarily affected fundamental rights, the following are now in question:
Art. 11 (1): Every person has the right to freedom of expression. This right includes freedom of expression and the freedom to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authorities and without regard to national borders.
Art. 11 (2): The freedom of the media and its plurality are respected.
Art. 10 (1): Every person has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Art. 6: Every person has the right to freedom and security.
Art. 7: Every person has the right to respect for their private and family life, their home and their communications.
Art. 8 (1): Everyone has the right to protection of personal data concerning them.”
Five Defining Characteristics of VdL Era
Creeping censorship, corruption, authoritarianism, economic decline and war: these are five of the defining characteristics of the VdL era. Is it any wonder that internal opposition is on the rise?
The first and, until now, last European Commission president to resign from office was Jacques Santer, in 1999. Even though he had little, if anything, to do with the misconduct of some of his fellow commissioners, he took responsibility and stepped down together with his entire Commission. Could the same happen with Ursula von der Leyen, who is directly implicated in a huge corruption scandal as well as cheerleading for a war that is going very badly for Europe as well as one that is just beginning in the Middle East, with potentially genocidal consequences?
It is possible though unlikely. After all, 1999 was a more innocent time in European politics. Corruption was less tolerated and politicians somewhat less craven. Also, VdL has only nine months left to run on her presidency. What’s more, she still has powerful friends, many of whose interests she has served for the past four years. They include, of course, the German and French governments that agreed to put her in the role in the first place. And, of course, Washington, which is now trying to convince EU leaders to commit another round of economic seppuku by forming a steel and aluminum tariff club to keep Chinese metals out. According to POLITICO Europe, VdL is poised to give in to US pressure, once again.
Also, von der Leyen, lest we forget, has a rare talent for failing upwards, so even if she does lose her job or is prevented from being reappointed for a second term, she will probably land a new one that is at least as good, if not better — such as, say, NATO chief. She has already shown she has a taste for war, is happily beholden to US interests and Joe Biden is apparently keen for her to fill the role.