The European Parliament has seen stormy sessions before but rarely as ugly as Tuesday’s when lawmakers scolded the bloc’s top officials for everything from their handling of the coronavirus pandemic to what they dubbed a disastrous trip last week to Moscow by Europe’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell.
Several national governments had urged Borrell, a former Spanish foreign minister, to call off his trip to the Russian capital, arguing it was ill-timed in the wake of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny’s jailing and amid the Kremlin’s paramilitary-style crackdown on street protests.
Furious European lawmakers are demanding Borrell resign for the visit, widely seen as having handed the Kremlin a propaganda victory. His critics accuse him of failing to stand up to Russian bullying. Eighty-one members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have signed a letter drafted by Estonian lawmaker Riho Terras calling for Borrell to go.
“Borrell’s misjudgment in proactively deciding to visit Moscow, and his failure to stand for the interests and values of the European Union during his visit, have caused severe damage to the reputation of the EU,” the letter reads.
“We believe that the president of the European Commission should take action, if Mr. Borrell does not resign,” the lawmakers added.
The criticisms were echoed Tuesday in the European Parliament’s chamber, even though Borrell hardened his language about the Kremlin when addressing lawmakers, telling them he would propose to EU foreign ministers next week a list of Russian names to be sanctioned over the jailing of Navalny.
“I will put forward concrete proposals,” he told lawmakers, adding that he had “no illusions before the visit.”
Borrell said “the Russian government is going down a worrisome authoritarian route,” and that the country “seeks to divide us.”
However, Borrell’s critics were not mollified.
“We have never looked so weak and clueless about how to deal with Russia,” Belgian lawmaker Hilde Vautmans told Borrell.
Dutch parliamentarian Sophie in ‘t Veld said Borrell has a “credibility problem.”
Borrell’s trip saw Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dub the EU an “unreliable partner” during a joint press conference in the Russian capital, leaving the EU’s top diplomat silent and half-smiling.
European governments fumed when it emerged that Borrell only learned through Twitter during a meeting with Lavrov that the Kremlin had expelled three European diplomats for allegedly participating in demonstrations in support of Navalny.
Some former and current European diplomats say Borrell probably should have abandoned the meeting upon learning about the expulsions.
Ursula von der Leyen has defended Borrell. Commission spokesperson on foreign policy Peter Stano said Borrell has her full backing. Stano said Borrell’s decision to remain silent during Lavrov’s verbal lashing of the EU was understandable. He said Borrell was “a diplomat” for whom “the press conference is not a platform for discussions or confrontations.”
Stano argued that Borrell had been “very vocal in the negotiations with Mr. Lavrov.”
But von der Leyen is not in a strong political position to protect Borrell, analysts say, and the Moscow trip is adding to alarm about her judgment, which increasingly is being called into question by European lawmakers and national governments.
The criticism of von der Leyen has focused on the bloc’s coronavirus inoculation rollout, which has been marred by logistical mistakes and hidebound bureaucracy, leaving the EU desperately short of vaccine doses.
The troubled rollout has lagged behind inoculation programs in Britain and the United States, with only two doses being administered so far for every 100 Europeans, compared to seven in the U.S. and 11 in Britain.
Von der Leyen and her commissioners had pushed for vaccine procurement and disbursement to be handled by the EU, arguing it would advertise the bloc’s strength and solidarity while reducing the risk of vaccine rivalry among the 27 member states.
But that is not the way it has turned out, and the European Commission president is now conceding that individual member states could have vaccinated their populations more quickly had they acted alone rather than having the EU oversee vaccine purchase and distribution.
On Monday, von der Leyen inadvertently added fuel to the fire by acknowledging that a country like Britain acting on its own can out-maneuver like a “speedboat” the slower-moving EU “tanker.”
EU lawmakers launched an onslaught on von der Leyen for the vaccine handling, dismissing her admission of errors as not enough.
“When are they going to accept that they made mistakes?” asked Croatian MEP Ivan Sincic, who said EU commissioners had been “acting blindly.”
The verbal lashing has left some observers questioning whether von der Leyen will complete her full five-year term as EC president. She has rejected calls from some quarters to resign, telling reporters last week that the time to “make a final assessment” of her performance will be at the end of her term in 2024.
EU officials have cautioned that public expectations are in some ways too high, and people need to be more patient, though they acknowledge people are yearning for an end to lockdowns and a resumption of their normal lives.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have both defended von der Leyen.
“What would people say if countries like France and Germany were competing with each other on vaccines?” Macron asked last week.
Merkel on Friday said it would have been “a mess, and counterproductive” for member states to procure and compete for vaccines.
Other national leaders are not convinced. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been especially tough, saying recently he was “not happy with the pace” and that it was a mistake for EU member states to cast their lot together in the hunt for vaccine supplies.
“There were manufacturers whose products were available sooner in Canada, the U.K,” he told Hungarian radio.
He added, “We’re unable to move faster with inoculating people not because Hungarian health care is incapable of carrying out mass vaccinations rapidly, but because we have a shortage of vaccine supplies.”
Hungary has broken ranks with the EU and ordered doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. Several other countries, including the Czech Republic, Italy and Spain, are also questioning whether it was wise to entrust Brussels with cutting the deals to provide vaccines for the 450 million people living in the bloc. They, too, are now considering making their own purchases.