EU Hypocrisy Hits Dizzying New Heights As Commission’s Scandal-Tarnished President Pledges to Wage Global Fight on Corruption

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Given EC President Ursula von der Leyen’s apparent allergy to basic transparency, she is the last person in Brussels to be leading the EU’s roll out of so-called “corruption sanctions”. 

On Wednesday (Sept.14), European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gave her State of the European Union speech. Predictably enough, it was heavy on the war in Ukraine (which Ukraine and its allies, including the EU, are handily and heroically winning) and light on the boomerang effects of the EU’s ever-escalating sanctions against Russia, which risk tipping the bloc’s economy and many of its industries over the edge. The speech also mentioned the Commission’s plans for a European Sovereignty Fund, a European Critical Raw Materials Act and a European Hydrogen Bank.

Von der Leyen extended an invitation to join the EU not only to Ukraine but also to Georgia, the two countries whose prospective NATO membership has represented a big, fat red line for Moscow since at least 2008, as well as Moldova and the western Balkans. Toward the end of her speech, she set her sights on corruption. And this is where things got really interesting. The EU, she said, needs to tackle corruption head on abroad, by applying so-called corruption sanctions. But that is not enough, said vdL. It also needs to eliminate corruption at home (presumably meaning everywhere in the EU except Brussels), which it intends to begin doing by suspending billions of euros of EU funds earmarked for Hungary, Russia’s closest EU ally, over corruption allegations:

If we want to be credible when we ask candidate countries to strengthen their democracies, we must also eradicate corruption at home.

That is why in the coming year the Commission will present measures to update our legislative framework for fighting corruption.

We will raise standards on offences such as illicit enrichment, trafficking in influence and abuse of power, beyond the more classic offences such as bribery.

And we will also propose to include corruption in our human rights sanction regime, our new tool to protect our values abroad.

Corruption erodes trust in our institutions. So we must fight back with the full force of the law.

The EU will not be the first Western power to project its “values” abroad in this way. It will, as almost always, be following the US’ lead. In its Global Magnitsky Act of 2016 Washington granted itself powers to sanction foreign government officials worldwide who are deemed to be human rights offenders or involved in significant corruption. Offenders can have their assets frozen or find themselves barred from entering the U.S (NC’s in-house legal expert Jerri-Lynn wrote a piece about it at the time). Three years later, the UK government passed its own Magnitsky amendment to its Sanctions and Money-Laundering Bill.

Nice Timing

But what makes von der Leyen’s declaration of total war on corruption particularly noteworthy is that it came just two days after the EU’s court of auditors released a report flagging up vdL’s own repeated violations of basic rules and procedures in her opaque dealings with Pfizer BioNTech. As Politico noted on Monday, the EU’s negotiations with Pfizer are looking less and less like normal business and more and more like a Whodunnit:

For all the other vaccine deals struck by the EU between 2020 and 2021, a joint team comprising officials from the Commission and seven member countries conducted exploratory talks. The outcome was then taken to a Vaccine Steering Board made up of representatives from all 27 EU member states who signed off on it.

But this established procedure was not followed in the case of the EU’s biggest contract, the Court of Auditors says. Instead, von der Leyen herself conducted preliminary negotiations for the contract in March, and presented the results to the steering board in April. Meanwhile, a planned meeting of scientific advisers, organized to discuss the EU’s vaccine strategy for 2022, never took place, the court writes.

Unlike with the other contract negotiations, the Commission refused to provide records of the discussions with Pfizer, either in the form of minutes, names of experts consulted, agreed terms, or other evidence. “We asked the Commission to provide us with information on the preliminary negotiations for this agreement,” the report’s authors write. “However, none was forthcoming.”

Even by the Commission’s usual standards, this total lack of transparency or accountability is highly unusual, a senior auditor who helped lead the investigation and who requested anonymity told Politico: “This comes up almost never. It’s not a situation that we at the court normally face.”

As I previously reported (here and here), vdL is already in hot water due to her refusal to disclose the content of her text messages with senior Pfizer executives, including the company’s CEO Albert Bourla. None of those communications have been made public. When the EU’s ombudsman Emily O’Reilly got involved in the matter in late 2021, urging the Commission to conduct a more thorough search for the text messages in question, the Commission played for time before finally declaring that it cannot and does not need to find the text messages.

“Due to their short-lived and ephemeral nature,” text messages “in general do not contain important information relating to policies, activities and decisions of the Commission,” wrote European Vice Commissioner for Values and Transparency Vera Jourová.

“The Biggest COVID-19 Vaccine Contract”

As I noted in a previous piece, text messages may be ephemeral — especially if you delete them as quickly as possible — but the results of them are not. In the case of the Commission’s negotiations with Pfizer BioNTech impact every EU citizen, for the simple reason that it is they who are picking up the bill. As a result of von der Leyen’s furtive communications with Pfizer, the Commission secured its third — and by far, largest — contract with Pfizer BioNTech, for 1.8 billion doses of the vaccine. As the European Court of Auditors notes, it was “the biggest COVID-19 vaccine contract signed by the Commission and will dominate the EU’s vaccine portfolio until the end of 2023”.

After Pfizer’s negotiations with vdL, the price of its vaccine shot up from €15.50 to €19.50 — all paid for with public funds. In total, the contract is worth up to €35 billion, which even for Pfizer is a princely sum.

VdL’s European Commission, working together with the governments of EU Member States, has done everything it can to get those shots into as many arms as possible. It created the world’s first region-wide COVID-19 certificate, which many EU member governments then used to make life a living hell for millions of vaccine-reluctant citizens. Some of those governments have since revoked mandatory vaccine certification, for the simple reason that it has very little impact on transmission of the virus.

Yet the Commission has extended the validity of its certificate until the end of June 2023. That was after 385,191 EU citizens responded overwhelmingly negatively to the idea in an EC-commissioned survey. In other words, the Commission asked what EU citizens thought of its plan and then completely ignored what they had to say.

Which brings us back to the present. Three days ago, the EU authorized Pfizer BioNTech’s biavalent vaccine with BA.4 and BA.5 spike proteins, despite the fact it has not yet been tested for safety or efficacy on a single human being. It is as yet unclear to what lengths EU Member States will go to get this new vaccine into people’s arms. With vaccine stockpiles rising so high that some governments, particularly in Eastern Europe, have been asking for a reduction in the amounts being ordered, the pressure to shift the stock is already mounting.

Meanwhile, VdL’s dodgy behavior has been called out by both the EU’s Court of Auditors and the EU’s Ombusdman Emily O’Reilly, who described the Commission’s refusal to disclose the texts between vdL and Pfizer as “maladministration”. VdL’s behavior is all the more galling given VdL’s own statement in her Political Guidelines that if “Europeans are to have faith in our Union, its institutions should be open and beyond reproach on ethics, transparency and integrity.”

“Impressively Free of Morals”

Von der Leyen was also called out this week by German MEP and political satirist Martin Sonneborn for the EU’s confounding decision to replace gas provided by Russia, “a country waging a brutal war of aggression” against Ukraine, with gas provided by Azerbaijan, a country that is “waging a brutal war of aggression” against Armenia and which is “far behind Russia in terms of democracy, press and civil liberties” (h/t Guurst). Here is the money quote from Sonneborn’s blistering speech:

“When you started your service here, I thought you were just incompetent and a bit criminal; I now know you are also impressively free of morals.”

Here is the full speech, which is well worth 90 seconds of your time:

This is not the first time VdL has been caught deleting sensitive messages and documents. In December 2019, less than a month into her new job at the helm of the EU’s executive branch, it was revealed that a mobile phone she had used as German defence minister had been wiped clean of all data. That data was believed to include information pertaining to contracts awarded by her defense ministry to external consultants, including Mckinsey & Co, without the proper oversight.

Given von der Leyen’s apparent allergy to basic procedural transparency, she is the last person in Brussels to be leading Europe’s fight against corruption, both within and beyond EU borders. Indeed, it is highly debatable whether the Commission itself is in any position to preach to the world about corruption given the breakneck speed of its revolving doors and the extent to which it remains in thrall to lobbies and business associations. Perhaps it should get its own house in order before launching a global war on corruption.

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24 comments

  1. DJG, Reality Czar

    “In December 2019, less than a month into her new job at the helm of the EU’s executive branch, it was revealed that a mobile phone she had used as German defence minister had been wiped clean of all data.”

    Why, there’s something positively Clintonian about it. Were the data mainly SMSs about yoga and her daughter’s wedding-o-ganza?

    It is good to see that Martin Sonneborn remains sane. A few days back, a commenter posted this article by Diana Johnstone, which was then pulled up into Water Cooler (I think). In any case, the article disturbed me greatly because of the sudden loss of famed German rationality and the stoking of resentments and visions of power.

    https://consortiumnews.com/2022/09/12/diana-johnstone-the-specter-of-germany-is-rising/

    And I recall from reading history that any time the Germans become irrational, they invade Italy. Hmmm.

    Reply
  2. nippersdad

    von der Leyen proves her corruption by offering EU membership to a bunch of countries that in no sense meet the criteria for membership during a speech on corruption? That is pretty blatant. Luckily the EU courts of justice are right down the hall……/s

    Are we all banana republics now?

    Reply
  3. Lex

    For a very long time I’ve maintained that the best tool for analyzing US foreign policy is projection. If the US is accusing Country X of doing something, 9 times out of 10 it’s a tell revealing what the US is doing (or planning). It’s not 100% correct of course but works well as a quick and dirty analytical tool. It now covers pretty much everything about western politics and economics.

    Reply
    1. Stephen

      That’s a helpful tool: not one I had used up to now but a good one to include.

      I will add it to my existing handy tool that many people already use which is to assume the complete opposite of whatever position the fully aligned corporate media are taking on pretty much anything.

      Similarly, it is not perfect but normally the best starting point to assess evidence against. Certainly far better than starting with whatever they are all saying.

      Reply
  4. Stephen

    I think vdl is the last person to be leading a charge against anything. Actually, let me think again on that: there are a lot of competitors for that sobriquet in EU and UK political circles these days.

    My own experience is that “texts” are usually the most salient elements of most commercial negotiations. No wonder they cannot be found.

    Normally, of course, the idea of buy side negotiations is to reduce price. I wonder how these ones led to price increases and how much of that the ephemeral texts explain.

    Did vdl (love the abbreviation) perform well as German Defence Minister? Rhetorical question. I know….

    Reply
    1. nippersdad

      An anecdote from Christoforou a few months ago spoke of a German war game in which many of the troops had no rifles. Not a problem, says vdL, we’ll just give them broom sticks!

      Not sure if it is true or not, but after what we have seen from her lately it would not surprise me.

      Reply
      1. The Rev Kev

        Years ago the Bundeswehr was so starved of funds, that they had to use broomsticks painted black sticking out of vehicles to simulate machine guns. And the name of the German Defense Minister under whose watch this happened was – wait for it – Ursula von der Leyen.

        Reply
    2. Michaelmas

      Did vdl (love the abbreviation) perform well as German Defence Minister? Rhetorical question. I know….

      Well, for the benefit of them what don’t know, our neoliberal elites in action —

      German army paints broomsticks black to resemble machine guns in Nato exercises
      https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/german-army-paints-broomsticks-black-to-resemble-machine-guns-in-nato-exercises-10054468.html

      ‘The German army has been painting broomsticks black and mounting them on armoured vehicles to resemble machine guns, it has emerged. Defence Ministry officials admitted employing the unusual props during military exercises in Norway with Nato’s rapid Response Force in September ….’

      ‘…Bundeswehr troops involved were lacking equipment including night vision devices, pistols and machine guns but the spokesperson said the items were not needed at the time and were available if required.’

      Ursula von der Leyen has always left a trail of disaster
      https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/ursula-von-der-leyen-has-always-left-a-trail-of-disaster

      ‘The German Army had to join a NATO exercise with broomsticks because they didn’t have any rifles. It’s special forces became a hotbed for right-wing extremism. Working mothers were meant to get federally-funded childcare, to help fix the country’s demographic collapse, but it never arrived, and the birth rate carried on falling. Every child was supposed to get a hot lunch at school every day, but somehow or other it didn’t quite happen. There is a common thread running through the career of Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission. A series of catastrophic misjudgements, and a failure to deliver.

      ‘In a brutal examination of her record this weekend, the influential German news magazine Spiegel concluded that VdL, as they refer to her in Berlin, was good at only one thing: evading responsibility for a series of disasters as family minister, labour and social affairs minister and then defence minister.’

      Reply
      1. Werther

        Well, in that case vdl has comparable properties to the prime minister of the Netherlands. He has a nickname ‘Mr. Teflon’. While there is a constant stream of politicians passing through in his entourage, as if they were scapegoats, he remains in position…
        A difference between him and vdl is, that he has a constant support of voters through the years, around a fifth of the electorate. Vdl doesn’t have much of that sort of legitimation.

        Reply
  5. Ignacio

    Where to start… easy! Thank you Mr. Corbishley. Ursula only knows about sanctions and believes her values are universal. Democracy? Not bad for someone who wasn’t elected but selected. She wants to erect herself as the policewoman of the world and fight corruption by inviting one of the most corrupt countries in the world to the EU? She believes that the objective of the EU is expansion, or colonization. This aren’t indeed my values and I would want to be out of a EU that follow vdL’s values. Contradictions are too many to summarize. In fact I believe that she has already abandoned many of the principles and values of the EU as written in the treaties.

    Summarizing, the State of the EU is: AWFUL. In good part thanks to people like her. The video with Sonneborn’s speech and the body language there… excellent addition!

    Reply
  6. Scylla

    Looks to me like this anti-corruption thing was engineered be used as the pretext to lean on Hungary for becoming a bit too independent.
    All the other optics be damned- western elites have a huge capacity when it comes to ignoring contradictions in their policies/statements/actions. They will use any pretext to justify their actions, or as Lambert used to say- Any stick to beat a dog.

    Reply
    1. Ambrose

      One would think that if it really was about corruption, there’d be a somewhat longer list of EU countries facing these sanctions. The fact that only Hungary is mentioned makes the intention pathetically transparent.

      Reply
  7. .human

    With vaccine stockpiles rising so high that some governments, particularly in Eastern Europe, have been asking for a reduction in the amounts being ordered, the pressure to shift the stock is already mounting.

    I believe that we are in a health care bubble of sorts. While picking up some diabetic supplies the other day the pharmacist gave me an unasked for, and unneeded, brand new blood glucose meter. No charge. He told me that he had to move them off his shelves.

    I do believe that the the amerikan public is over-medicated and prescribed. Shades of a non-opioid drug epidemic?

    Reply
    1. AW

      The financial incentive for pharmaceutical companies is pretty obvious: sick people don’t have much choice if medicines are the only thing that will keep them alive, and in Europe health insurance is mandatory in many countries. So basically they can charge whatever they like and produce copious quantities in the sure knowledge that they will be able to move their merchandise somewhere, and get their pound of flesh somehow. (The large companies have a bigger budget for advertising than R&D―I just read Bourla’s profile on wiki; his views on medical ethics implied from his free market theology of drug production are quite disturbing. Are these people not subject to some version of Hippocratic thought?)

      What prompted me to reply though is more of a practical concern I’ve had for a long time based on your ‘over-medicated and prescribed’ observation. As a physicist my chemical and biochemical knowledge is perhaps not up to scratch, but I understand from various second-hand sources that many, if not most, drugs are poorly metabolised, and furthermore are difficult, if not impossible, to filter out of the waste water. Should primary producers of waste not be held to account to some extent? Surely there is a case to be made to force those who pollute waterways to source their water requirements downstream from where they discharge their waste―particularly where production proceeds in the cavalier manner of the pharmaceutical industry? At the very least they should contribute to mopping up the mess they create. Perhaps the waste is benign―I would be very happy to be assured of this.

      Reply
  8. JTMcPhee

    Democracy dies in the dark, and vdL spreads a pretty broad and dark shadow. She’s seemingly point person for the centripitalism forces drawing all the threads of power on the European continent into Brussels. Or at least one of them. An echo of the current “federalized” system in the US, which has pretty much stamped out any vestiges of “voice of the people” and operates like an aggressive cancer tumor that hijacks angiogenesis to trick the body into building large arteries feeding ever more of the body’s resources directly to the cancer. Another cancer trick is to trick the immune system into thinking that cancer cells are “just like all the other good tissue cells.” And so the patient descends into cachexia and the organs eventually fail…

    Reply
  9. Petter

    Leaving the disaster that is vdl aside, there have been numerous articles about corruption within the EU through the years.
    Here’s an article from 2016: Corruption costs the EU €71 billion a year.
    The article gives different numbers, dependent on what’s counted. The highest being 900 billion.
    https://euobserver.com/rule-of-law/132784

    Reply
  10. Revenant

    Will the forces in play lead to an EU civil war, not over slave power but fossil fuel…?

    Hungary is not the only EU nation that refuses to follow the Brussels line: popular sentiment in Italy is restive but its leaders have always capitulated so far; Spain and Portugal have a separate Iberian energy market and have, for the moment, obtained an exemption from EU policy; Austria is not a NATO member. Will the Unionists in Brussels move against these southern states: cutting their transfer payments, suspending their votes in council, passing legislation against their interests and, ultimate weapon, removing ECB backing for their monetary systems?

    The EU has always moved forward to deeper integration through crises. The energy crisis might be the first crisis where the ideology in Brussels can admit no compromise because it would weaken the ever closer union and so the only way to save the village is to destroy it….

    Reply
  11. KL

    IMHO Ursula fond of Lying is a socket puppet of Angela Merkel who in turn is a socket puppet of the USA.
    And the excessive price for the Pfizer vaccine could be understood as a transfer of funds from the vassal (Germany and/or EU) to the hegemon.

    Reply
  12. Colin

    the Commission asked what EU citizens thought of its plan and then completely ignored what they had to say.

    Standard Operating Procedure. In 2005, I voted in an referendum against the proposed EU constitution, as did a majority of other people living in the Netherlands, as did a majority in France. The outcome in both cases was simply ignored. A majority voted it down in Ireland as well, but that referendum was in some way binding, so they held it a second time to get the “correct” outcome. At that point, it was decided to dispense with referendums, and the EU constitution (a profoundly neoliberal manifesto) was renamed the Lisbon Treaty and passed the following year without popular mandate. The EU is not simply undemocratic, it is actively anti-democratic. “Democracy” for the Brussels mandarins means EU member-states renouncing national sovereignty and adhering to the EU agenda 100%, while ignoring the plebes. Every crisis is the opportunity for a grabbing yet more power. In a way I’m glad UvdL, Borrell, and others are so incredibly incompetent; it simply hastens the day when the entire wretched edifice will collapse.

    Reply
  13. Steve

    The EU is trading one bloodthirsty warmongering dictator (Putin) for another (Aliyev) that gets less media coverage. Aliyev’s Azerbaijan is a petro-dictatorship that just invaded the SOVEREIGN territory of the democratic Republic of Armenia, just as Russia invaded Ukraine. So much for democratic EU values Ursula!

    Reply

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