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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.
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.