December 05, 2023

European Parliament chiefs block public scrutiny of von der Leyen over Pfizer contract

Author : Carlo Martuscelli and Eddy Wax | Editor : Anty | February 23, 2023 at 10:35 AM

The top ranks of the European Parliament have slammed the door shut to a public cross-examination of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over her personal role in negotiating a multibillion euro vaccine deal with Pfizer.

Last month, lawmakers in the Parliament's special committee on COVID-19 proposed to invite von der Leyen to answer questions on the EU's largest vaccine contract, signed at the height of the pandemic. It was in the run-up to this contract that she is reported to have exchanged text messages with Pfizer's Chief Executive Albert Bourla.

However, at a closed-door meeting Thursday of the Conference of Presidents (CoP) — which includes the heads of all the political groups and the Parliament's president — leaders refused the request to hold a public grilling. Instead they decided to ask von der Leyen to answer questions in private at some point in the future, watering down the invitation to almost nothing.

"It was agreed that CoP will be able to raise ... [the Parliament's COVID-19 committee's] concerns in their next regular meeting with the president of the Commission," said an EU official with knowledge of the confidential discussions.

It's an ironic twist given that the controversy surrounding von der Leyen's negotiations with Pfizer has centered precisely on a lack of transparency. Now, any discussions that do eventually take place will happen in front of high-ranking MEPs and out of the public eye.

The European People's Party MEP in the room, Siegfried Mure?an, dismissed the suggestion that the group was protecting von der Leyen — also affiliated with the EPP — as a "conclusion in search of an argument."

"The broad consensus was that we’re in dialogue with her [and] that should continue in the formats that have worked so far and that we have established," he told POLITICO.

Accountability ... or not

The decision is a defeat for the European Parliament's special COVID-19 committee, led by Belgian Socialist MEP Kathleen Van Brempt, which had pressed European Parliament President Roberta Metsola on the von der Leyen invite. A number of different ideas of how the Commission president might make her appearance, ranging from a public session in front of the committee to a joint hearing in the Conference of Presidents, had been floated.

But Van Brempt's own S&D group supported the push to only hold the discussions behind closed doors at the CoP, according to a spokesperson. Renew Europe, the third-largest force, also shared the position of EPP and S&D.

Two groups — the right wing European Conservatives and Reformists group and the far-right Identity and Democracy groups — pushed for more accountability for von der Leyen by requesting that she either address the full plenary or speak in front of the dedicated COVID panel.

And, following the meeting, a spokesperson for the Left group said: "It's good that she comes to talk about it in the CoP but we think Parliament should also have a public hearing with VDL on it, not just the Conference of Presidents."

The reaction from MEPs on the COVID-19 committee, which will now be cut out altogether, is clear: They're not happy.

Dutch MEP Robert Roos, COVID committee coordinator for the ECR group, called it a "disgraceful decision."

"Von der Leyen negotiated a multibillion dollar deal with EU taxpayer money. As the European Parliament, we should be able to hold her accountable. A secret backdoor meeting with only the presidents of the political groups is not accountability," he said.

COVID-19 committee vice chair, French MEP Michèle Rivasi of the Greens group, said that the top EU officials were trying to "keep it in the family."

Another committee member, Cristian Terhe? of the ECR group, said: “The reason this COVID committee was created was to find out what happened and why. Well, she should come and answer questions."

A separate proposal to revoke Pfizer lobbyists' access to the European Parliament in response to its Chief Executive Albert Bourla's refusal to appear in front of the COVID-19 committee was also shot down by the CoP on Thursday, according to Rivasi's office.

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A big deal

COVID committee MEPs wanted to quiz the Commission boss about the unusual personal role she took in negotiating what turned out to be the EU's biggest vaccine deal by far. Worth an estimated €35 billion if fully exercised, it's for 900 million doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, with the possibility of buying 900 million more.

Millions of those same doses are now sitting unused in warehouses all over the EU, destined for landfills. Negotiators are desperately trying to get concessions out of Pfizer to cancel or halt some of those deliveries, with apparently little success.

According to reporting from the New York Times, von der Leyen directly exchanged text messages with Pfizer's Chief Executive Albert Bourla to help hash out a deal in the run up to the contract, which closed in April 2021. That same American newspaper is now suing to have those text messages released into the public.

A possible European Public Prosecutor's Office investigation into von der Leyen's conduct has thrown more fuel on the fire. In October the body announced it was officially looking into the vaccine negotiations, without saying whether it is the top Commission official who is in its crosshairs.

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