Nick Corbishley – Is Justice Finally Catching Up to Ursula von der Leyen?

April 5, 2024 –

The only reason von der Leyen became EU Commission President was to get her out of Germany where she was facing similar corruption investiagations including her having “inadvertently” deleted all her SMS messages. But do not expect any justice in this case either. That is not how corruption in Europe, especially in the EU, functions.

Nick Corbishley is a writer, journalist, teacher, and translator based in Barcelona.

Cross-posted from Other News

Prosecutors “could theoretically seize phones and other relevant material from Commission offices or in other European countries,” as they expand their criminal probe into the Pfizergate scandal. 

As we warned in October last year, the walls may finally be closing in on EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen even as the EU begins to mobilise its mass censorship regime for the upcoming EU elections. There was always a risk that von der Leyen’s candidacy for reelection would be over-shadowed by the multiple lawsuits she faces over the “Pfizergate” scandal. This may already be happening.

On Monday (April 1), Politico reported that EU prosecutors had taken over a Belgian criminal probe into alleged wrong-doing in connection with vaccine negotiations between von der Leyen and the CEO of Pfizer, Albert Bourla. That probe centres around alleged text messages between von der Leyen and Albert Bourla during preliminary negotiations for the EU’s biggest vaccine deal that VdL has refused to disclose. As the article notes, the latest development comes at a “delicate moment for the EU’s chief, as she navigates the transition to what Brussels observers expect will be a second term at the head of the Berlaymont.”

Breaking the Silence

With the exception of Politico, the story has been studiously ignored by the English-language legacy media. This should come as little surprise: as I reported in June 2023, the EU’s COVID-19 vaccine procurement scandal has steadily grown despite deafening silence from the mainstream media. But the news has been covered by European outlets, including Germany’s Berliner Zeitung and Focus magazine; Valeurs Actuelles and Atlantico in France, and La Repubblica, Il Sole 24 Ore, and Il Fatto Quotidiano in Italy. Let’s begin with the Politico article:

Investigators from the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) have in recent months taken over from Belgian prosecutors investigating von der Leyen over “interference in public functions, destruction of SMS, corruption and conflict of interest,” according to legal documents seen by POLITICO and a spokesperson from the Liège prosecutor’s office. While EPPO’s prosecutors are investigating alleged criminal offenses, no one has yet been charged in connection with the case.

The probe was originally opened by Belgian judicial authorities in the city of Liège in early 2023 after a criminal complaint lodged by local lobbyist Frédéric Baldan. He was later joined by the Hungarian and Polish governments — although the latter is in the process of withdrawing its complaint after the election win by a pro-EU government led by Donald Tusk, a Polish government spokesperson told POLITICO.

What the Politico article fails to mention is that Donald Tusk is a close ally of von der Leyen’s as well as a former president of the European Council (2014-19). Both Tusk and von der Leyen are members of the same centre-right European People’s Party. Since returning to power in December, the VdL Commission has begun unblocking up to €137 billion in EU funds for Poland that had been frozen amid a standoff with Poland’s previous “Law and Order” government. In other words, Tusk’s offer to withdraw Poland’s complaint is no surprise. In short order, Poland will presumably be receiving a new consignment of millions of unwanted vaccines.

The criminal complaint lodged by Baldan in April 2023 accuses von der Leyen of “interference in public functions”, “destruction of public documents” and “illegal conflicts of interests and corruption.” The 35-year old Belgian lobbyist argues that the Belgian state suffered financially as a result of the EU Commission’s €35 billion deal with Pfizer-BioNTech to buy up to 1.8 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines. Unsurprisingly, that turned out to be way more than the EU countries needed and many doses had to be destroyed or donated. According to Baldan, VdL’s actions also “constitute an attack on public morality, on the legitimate confidence of European citizens, on good administration and on transparency.”

Pfizer-BioNTech vs Hungary and Poland

Hungary and Poland joined Baldan’s complaint after Pfizer and its German vaccine partner, BioNtech, announced they were suing both countries over their refusal to take delivery of millions more doses of their COVID-19 vaccines, many of which would end up getting destroyed months later. There have already been at least €4 billion worth of wasted vaccine doses in the EU. The Commission’s vaccine contract with Pfizer has since been renegotiated, but Hungary’s Orbán government and the former Law and Order government of Poland still refused to take delivery of more vaccines.

As we noted at the time, Pfizer and BioNtech’s subsequent lawsuits were particularly egregious even by the normal standards of investor-state dispute settlements (ISDS):

Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccines are in much lower demand in Europe, as just about everywhere else, for a good reason: they have proven to be not nearly as safe nor as effective as their manufacturers had originally claimed… What’s more, the EU’s purchases of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are themselves the subject of a criminal investigation. That’s right: Pfizer and BioNTech are trying to force payment through the Belgian court system of a contract that is itself being investigated by the Luxembourg-based European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) [as well as public prosecutors in Liège, Belgium]. Meanwhile, BioNtech is facing a rash of lawsuits in its native Germany for suspected injuries and adverse events caused by its COVID-19 vaccine while Pfizer is facing a trial in Texas for misrepresenting the efficacy of its vaccine.

The EPPO was founded in 2017 to conduct “pan-European investigations into crimes against the EU budget,” including fraud, corruption, money laundering and VAT fraud. As the Politico piece notes, the prosecutors “could theoretically seize phones and other relevant material from Commission offices or in other European countries such as Von der Leyen’s native Germany,” which would certainly not be a good look for the VdL’s reelection campaign. Some are calling for her removal.

“Mrs. von der Leyen’s disregard for the rule of law and transparency obligations at the top of the EU Commission makes her unsustainable for another term in office,” said Fabio De Masi, a former lawmaker for Germany’s socialist Left Party who sat on a parliamentary inquiry into the Wirecard affair and is now running as an EU candidate for Germany’s populist-left party, Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht.

It remains to be seen whether further Pfizergate revelations will emerge over the next two months, and whether they will be enough to scupper Von der Leyen’s reelection prospects.

Besides Baldan and the governments of Poland and Hungary, VdL’s behaviour has also been denounced by the European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, and the European Court of Auditors. In 2022, O’Reilly concluded that the Commission’s refusal to properly consider FOI requests for the text messages constitutes “maladministration.” The NYT, which first revealed that the covert communications had taken place as Bourla and Von der Leyen hashed out the terms of the deal, has also launched a parallel lawsuit against the Commission after it refused to disclose the content of the messages following an FOI request.

As if that were not enough, a report by the EU’s Court of Auditors found that VdL had directly participated in preliminary negotiations for the vaccine contract, in a total departure from the EU’s standard negotiating procedures. The Commission refused to provide the auditors with records of the discussions with Pfizer, either in the form of minutes, names of experts consulted, agreed terms, or other evidence. This was enough to trigger a formal investigation into the Commission’s acquisition of COVID-19 vaccines by the European Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Now, the EPPO appears to be intensifying that investigation, though there are still more questions than answers. What will happen to the charges being pursued in the Belgian investigation that do not fall within the EPPO’s remit, such as interference in public functions and destruction of evidence? Also, how long it will take for the prosecutors to present charges (assuming they ever will)? The EPPO has already been investigating the EU’s vaccine purchases for well over a year, yet no one has been charged in connection with the case.

Also worth noting: the Politico article does not include any official response or comments from the EPPO. Nor is there any mention of this latest development on the EPPO’s official website, which makes one wonder just how serious it is about pursuing the case.

Failing Upwards

This is not the first time that VdL has faced a criminal investigation for alleged deliberate destruction of evidence. In late 2019, just after VdL had resigned as German Defence Minister Tobias Lindner, a member of the opposition Green party, filed a complaint over suspected deliberate destruction of evidence requested by a German parliamentary committee investigating lucrative contracts her defense ministry had awarded to outside consultants without proper oversight. Just as in Pfizergate, VdL was accused of deleting all of her mobile communications, not on one phone but two.

But by that time, VdL had already relocated to Brussels after being hand-picked by Merkel and Macron for the role of European Commission president. Despite facing no challengers for the job, VdL clinched the presidency with a wafer-thin margin of just nine votes.

This time round, she will be facing slightly more competition albeit from a relatively unknown European Commissioner called Nicholas Schmit. According to most media reports, VdL is still expected to win despite all the baggage as well as the anaemic levels of public support for her Commission. A recent poll by Ipsos for Euronews revealed that most voters (63%) either view the Commission’s work negatively or have no opinion, “suggesting the EU executive is not cutting through to most Europeans.”

Is this any surprise given the defining characteristics of the Von der Leyen era include economic decline and naked corruption; creeping digital censorship, surveillance and control; escalating war with Russia and and unabashed support for Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza? The fact that she’s still hotly tipped to hold onto the top job at the EU’s increasingly powerful executive arm despite all of this speaks volumes about the state of political leadership in the EU today.

Lastly, one must not discount VdL’s rare talent for failing upwards. The last time she faced a  criminal investigation, she was promoted to EU Commission President. As such, even if she does lose her current job or is prevented from being reappointed for a second term, she will probably land a new one that is at least as good, if not better — such as, say, NATO chief. She has already amply shown she has a taste for war and is blissfully beholden to US interests.