( From the files of CNN)
The year is just six weeks old, but the inherent limitations of the European Union are already being revealed in 2021.
While the EU is no stranger to crises, the past few weeks have raised issues that highlight the gap between Brussels' great ambition and its ability.
Things have been so bad that two of the bloc's most senior officials have been called upon to resign, while the EU's executive arm, the European Commission, is being asked serious questions.
The most immediate issue is a vaccine scandal involving Covid-19. Brussels realized earlier in the pandemic that a rush for vaccines could lead to the purchase of huge supplies by wealthy member states and the reliance on their charity by poorer nations. It stepped in and secured deals at a better price with producers than could be negotiated by individual countries.
The majority of Member States were satisfied with this situation—until the United Kingdom began to vaccinate more quickly than the EU. By announcing a policy that threatened to create a border on the island of Ireland, the Commission decided to address this issue, risking the return of sectarian violence. Member States — not least Ireland, a member of the EU — were furious about 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."
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.
In addition to her pain, her chief of foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, was also faced with calls to leave after a disastrous visit to Moscow in which the EU had been humiliated at a joint press conference with Sergey Lavrov, his opposite number. Just hours after Russian opposition leader Alexey Navelny had been sentenced to more than two years in prison, Borrell had been under pressure not to travel to Moscow.
Clearly, Borrell was not prepared for the masterful use of the media by Lavrov, using questions to call the EU an "unreliable partner," as the High Representative of Brussels 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.
The claim of the Commission to defend democracy within the bloc is also under fire.
On Tuesday, a Budapest court upheld the Hungarian Media Council's decision to remove the country's last remaining independent radio station from the air. The Media Council members are elected by the Hungarian National Assembly, in which the Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has a majority.
Horrified by Orban's recent assault on democracy, the EU Commissioner for Human Rights tweeted, although, as many have pointed out, tweets do not impel want to be autocrats to reverse policies.