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Given European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s apparent sensitivity to basic transparency, she is the latest person in Brussels to lead the EU’s rollout of so-called “corruption sanctions”.
On Wednesday (14 September), European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivered her State of the European Union address. As expected enough, it weighed heavily on the war in Ukraine (which Ukraine and its allies, including the European Union, won easily and heroically) and highlighted the rebounding effects of mounting EU sanctions on Russia, which risk upending the bloc’s economy. And many of its industries are on the brink. The letter also referred to the Commission’s plans for the European Sovereignty Fund, the European Critical Raw Materials Act, and the European Hydrogen Bank.
Von der Leyen extended an invitation to join the European Union not only to Ukraine but also to Georgia, two countries whose prospective NATO membership has been a big 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 get really interesting. She said the EU needs to tackle corruption directly abroad, by applying so-called corruption sanctions. But that’s not enough, vdL said. It also needs to stamp out corruption at home (presumably to mean everywhere in the EU except Brussels), which it intends to start doing by suspending billions of euros of EU money earmarked for Hungary, Russia’s closest ally in the EU, due to Corruption allegations:
If we are to be credible when we ask candidate countries to strengthen their democracies, we must also root out corruption at home.
That is why next year the Commission will introduce measures to modernize our anti-corruption legislative framework.
We will raise the standards for crimes such as illicit enrichment, trading in influence and abuse of power, beyond more traditional crimes such as bribery.
We will also propose including corruption in our human rights sanctions regime, a new tool to protect our values abroad.
Corruption undermines trust in our institutions. Therefore we must resist with full force of law.
The European Union would not be the first Western power to display its “values” abroad in this way. And it will, as always, follow in the footsteps of the United States. In the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act, Washington gave itself powers to sanction foreign government officials around the world who are considered human rights violators or are involved in significant corruption. Perpetrators could have their assets frozen or banned from entering the United States (North Carolina in-house legal expert Jerry Lynn wrote an article about that at the time). Three years later, the UK government passed its own Magnitsky Amendment to the Penal and Money Laundering Act.
But what makes von der Leyen’s declaration of an all-out war on corruption particularly noteworthy is that it came just two days after the European Court of Auditors issued a report citing vdL’s repeated violations of basic rules and procedures in its opaque dealings with Pfizer BioNTech. as such Politico Noted on Monday, the EU’s negotiations with Pfizer look less and less like normal business and more and more like Whodunnit:
For all other EU vaccine deals between 2020 and 2021, a joint team made up of officials from the Commission and seven member states held exploratory talks. The result was then passed on to the Vaccine Steering Board made up of representatives from all 27 EU member states who signed it.
But the Court of Auditors says this procedure was not followed in the case of the EU’s largest contract. Instead, von der Leyen herself conducted preliminary contract negotiations in March, and presented the findings to the Steering Board in April. Meanwhile, the court wrote that a planned meeting of scientific advisors, organized to discuss the European Union’s vaccine strategy for 2022, never took place.
Unlike other contract negotiations, the panel declined to provide records of discussions with Pfizer, either in the form of minutes, the names of experts consulted, terms agreed upon, or other evidence. “We have asked the Commission to provide us with information on the initial negotiations for this agreement,” the report’s authors wrote. “However, nothing was imminent.”
Even by the usual standards of a commission, this complete lack of transparency or accountability is highly unusual, a The chief auditor who helped lead the investigation and asked not to be named told Politico: “This almost never happens. It is not a case we usually encounter in court.”
As I mentioned earlier (here and here), vdL is already in hot water due to its refusal to disclose the content of its text messages with top Pfizer executives, including CEO Albert Burla. None of these communications have been announced. When EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly became involved in the matter in late 2021, urging the Commission to do a more thorough research into the text messages in question, the Commission played time before finally declaring it could not. no Need to find text messages.
“Due to their short-lived and ephemeral nature,” the European Deputy Commissioner for Values and Transparency Vera Jourova wrote, text messages “generally do not contain important information relating to the policies, activities and decisions of the Commission.”
‘Biggest COVID-19 Vaccine Decade’
As I pointed out in a previous article, text messages may be ephemeral – especially if you delete them ASAP – but their results are not. In the case of the Commission’s negotiations with Pfizer BioNTech, it affects every citizen of the European Union, for the simple reason that they are the ones taking the bill. As a result of von der Leyen’s covert contacts with Pfizer, the commission secured its third – and by far the largest – contract with Pfizer BioNTech, for 1.8 billion doses of the vaccine. As noted by the European Court of Auditors, it was “the largest 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 the vdL, the price of its vaccine rose from €15.50 to €19.50 – all paid with public funds. In all, the value of the contract is up to 35 billion euros, which is an eminent amount even for Pfizer.
The European Commission of the VdL, in cooperation with the governments of the member states of the European Union, did everything in its power to deliver those shots to as many weapons as possible. It created the world’s first region-wide COVID-19 certification, which many EU member governments then used to make life a living hell for the millions of citizens who are reluctant to get vaccinated. Since then, some of those governments have rescinded mandatory vaccine certification, for the simple reason that it has very little effect on transmission of the virus.
However, the Commission extended the validity of its certificate until the end of June 2023. This was after 385,191 EU citizens responded overwhelmingly negative to the idea in a survey commissioned by the European Commission. In other words, the Commission asked what EU citizens thought of its plan and then completely ignored what they would say.
Which brings us back to the present. Three days ago, the European Union authorized a bivalent Pfizer BioNTech vaccine with BA.4 and BA.5 proteins, despite the fact that it has not yet been tested for safety or effectiveness in a single human. It is not yet clear how far EU member states will go to get this new vaccine in people’s arms. With vaccine stocks soaring so high that some governments, particularly in Eastern Europe, have been calling for needed volumes to be reduced, the pressure to divert the stock is already mounting.
Meanwhile, VdL’s evasive behavior has been called by both the EU Court of Auditors and the EU’s Ombusdman, Emily O’Reilly, who called the Commission’s refusal to disclose transcripts between vdL and Pfizer “mismanagement”. The VdL’s behavior is even more disturbing given the VdL’s own statement in its policy guidelines that “if Europeans have faith in our union, its institutions must be open and not critical of ethics, transparency, and integrity.”
Von der Leyen was also called up this week by German MEP and political satirist Martin Sonneborn for the EU’s confusing decision to replace gas supplied by Russia, a “country waging a brutal war of aggression” against Ukraine, with gas supplied by Azerbaijan, a country that is “waging a brutal war of aggression” Against Armenia which is “far from Russia in terms of democracy, press and civil liberties” (h/t Guurst). Here is the money quote from Sonneborn’s sharp speech:
“When I began your service here, I thought you were just a bit incompetent and a criminal; now I know that you too are impressively immoral.”
Here is the entire speech, which is worth 90 seconds of your time:
This isn’t the first time that VdL has been caught deleting sensitive messages and documents. In December 2019, less than a month into her new job at the head of the European Union’s executive branch, it was revealed that a cell phone she was using as Germany’s defense minister was erased of all data. This data is believed to include information regarding contracts that its Department of Defense awarded to outside advisors, including Mckinsey & Co, without appropriate oversight.
Given von der Leyen’s apparent sensitivity to basic procedural transparency, she is the last person in Brussels to lead Europe’s war against corruption, both within and outside EU borders. Indeed, it is 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 continues to enslave lobbyists and business associations. Perhaps she should put her own house in order before launching a global war on corruption.