George Georgiou – Ursula von der Leyen: Beyond redemption

To be accused of impropriety on one occasion may be regarded as a misfortune but to be accused on four occasions looks like carelessness. (With apologies to Oscar Wilde)

George Georgiou is an economist who for many years worked at the Central Bank of Cyprus in various senior roles, including Head of Governor’s Office during the financial crisis

Cross-posted from Other News

If there is one individual who, more than anyone else, symbolises the ineptitude of the European Commission then it is surely the Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen (hereafter, VDL).

Questions about VDL’s lack of probity first surfaced in 2015 when she was accused of plagiarising her doctoral dissertation. She was eventually cleared of the accusations but as the BBC reported on 9 March 2016, the president of the Hannover Medical School, Christopher Baum, conceded that “Ms von der Leyen’s thesis did contain plagiarised material”, but he added “there had been no intent to deceive”. Her first lucky escape.

VDL’s lack of probity continued while she served as Germany’s Minister of Defence between 2013 and 2019. During her tenure at the ministry, she became embroiled in a scandal regarding payments of €250 million to consultants related to arms contracts. Germany’s Federal Audit Office found that, of the €250 million declared for consultancy fees, only €5.1 million had been spent. Furthermore, one of the consultants was McKinsey & Company, where VDL’s son was an associate, thus raising a possible conflict of interest. It also emerged that messages related to the contracts had been deleted from two of VDL’s mobile phones. Although she was eventually cleared of corruption allegations, questions over her probity during that period remain to this day.

Having survived two scandals, VDL couldn’t believe her luck when in July 2019 Macron, together with Merkel, bypassed the Spitzenkadidaten process and nominated her as Jean-Claude Junker’s successor as head of the European Commission. The Spitzenkadidaten process, through which the lead candidate emerges and is then ratified by the European Parliament, is itself somewhat arcane. In VDL’s case, she was fortunate that the EU couldn’t agree on either of the two lead candidates at the time, Martin Weber and Frans Timmermans. It was thus left to the consummate fixer, Macron, and VDL’s mentor, Merkel, to come to an agreement using that great democratic and transparent tool called the ‘backroom deal’. VDL’s nomination was accepted by the European Council and on 16 July the European Parliament voted to accept her appointment. But it was a close vote. Out of a total of 747 MEPs, only 383 voted for her, 327 voted against, 22 abstained, and one vote was invalid. Under the EU rules, the president of the Commission must be elected with more than 50% of the MEP votes. Thus, she received only 9 votes more than the threshold. Compare this to her predecessor, Juncker, who in 2014 received 422 votes.

After she was appointed president of the European Commission, VDL again became embroiled in controversy, this time involving the procurement of the Covid-19 vaccine from Pfizer. The scandal, which the media dubbed Pfizergate, related to the purchase of 1.8 billion doses of the Pfizer vaccine for use across the EU. It transpired that: a) the number of doses was far greater than was required, resulting in a significant number having to be either destroyed or donated; b) the excess doses cost the EU €4 billion; c) the total value of the contract, which Politico reported as being approximately €20 billion, was inflated; and d) the most damaging charge, the contract for the vaccines was negotiated directly between VDL and Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer. The negotiations were conducted using sms messages, which VDL later claimed to have deleted.

The New York Times, which initially carried out the investigation into Pfizergate, brought a lawsuit against the European Commission for failing to provide access to the sms conversations between VDL and Bourla. In Belgium, a lobbyist, Frederic Baldan, filed a criminal complaint citing corruption and the destruction of documents. The Belgian lawsuit was eventually taken over by the European Public Prosecutors Office, which opened a criminal investigation. The outcome of these legal proceedings/investigations is still pending.

One would have thought that the imprudent VDL would have learned a lesson from all these transgressions but it seems that nothing will stand in the way of Ursula and a good scandal. Which brings us to her latest impropriety, cronyism. In January of this year, VDL had appointed fellow CDU politician, Martin Pieper, to a newly created and lucrative post of special envoy for SMEs. The appointment was reported by La Matinale Europeenne in February but it wasn’t until April that the controversy surrounding the appointment received wide coverage in the English language media.

The appointment was controversial for two reasons: 1) the recruitment process was flawed and 2) the choice of Pieper was seen as politically motivated. On the first issue, it was revealed by an anonymous EU official that there had been two other candidates, one from Sweden and one from the Czech Republic, who had scored better than Pieper in the recruitment process.

On the second issue, there was strong suspicion that Pieper had been chosen by VDL in order to curry favour with the CDU and thus win their backing for her reappointment as head of the European Commission. The appointment sparked a strong response both from other members of the Commission and from MEPs. Four senior Commissioners, including Joseph Borrell and the Internal Market Commissioner, Thiery Breton, wrote to VDL on 27 March expressing their concern about the appointment’s lack of transparency and impartiality. On 11 April, MEPs voted by 382 to 144 to rescind Pieper’s appointment. Although the vote was not binding on the Commission, Pieper’s position became untenable and on 16 April he resigned. In the words of Daniel Freund, a German/Greens MEP, reported on Euronews, it was “sad and shameful”. He added: “I don’t know how we can explain it to the voters”.

At the time of writing, Euronews has reported that a deal has been sealed for her reappointment. It’s not clear when the European Parliament will formerly vote for her but it’s likely to be later this week. The exact date is a trivial matter. What is not trivial is that VDL’s reappointment for another 5 years, despite all the improprieties mentioned above, would confirm what many have been advocating for some time, that the EU needs radical reform. EU citizens need to see that EU institutions are far more transparent, accountable and democratic.

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