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Friday, Feb 03, 2023

MEPs want to grill von der Leyen over Pfizer vaccine contract

MEPs want to grill von der Leyen over Pfizer vaccine contract

The European Parliament’s COVID-19 committee will ask the European Commission president to appear before the panel.
An unwanted invite may soon be landing in Ursula von der Leyen's mailbox.

The MEPs leading the European Parliament's COVID-19 committee have decided to ask the president of the European Commission to appear publicly in front of the panel, according to a statement sent exclusively to POLITICO by the committee's chair, Belgian MEP Kathleen Van Brempt.

Lawmakers want to ask von der Leyen about her role negotiating a massive, multibillion euro coronavirus 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.

"The European Union has spent a lot of public resources into the production and purchase of vaccines during the pandemic," Van Brempt said in the statement. "[T]he Parliament has the right to obtain full transparency on the modalities of these expenditures and the preliminary negotiations leading up to them."

So far, the Commission President has dodged questions about what went down in those crucial months.

Neither the EU's ombudsman or the Court of Auditors have been able to shed a light on the murky dealings. The European Public Prosecutor's Office, which is armed with legal powers that the other watchdog agencies lack, has opened an investigation into the vaccine contracts, without saying whether the Commission President is its target.

The COVID panel has been looking into the deal — the third and largest contract signed with Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech — and has so far heard from both the Court of Auditors and the ombudsman. But Bourla refused the summons, sending an underling in his stead.

Following the Parliament's rules, the invite will be sent to Parliament President Roberta Metsola, who will decide then whether to ask von der Leyen to attend the hearing. Metsola is a member of the center-right European People's Party group, the same one that placed the Commission President in her role.

The invitation, if it does arrive, doesn't have any legal force. Like Bourla, von der Leyen can refuse to appear. But with calls for greater transparency growing louder as the Qatargate corruption scandal engulfs Brussels, she may feel like she can't say no.

It's not just von der Leyen who is in the MEPs' crosshairs. Van Brempt said in her statement that the committee would also ask to revoke Pfizer's European Parliament access privileges in response to Bourla's refusal to testify. It's happened in the past: Lawmakers voted to ban Monsanto lobbyists in 2017 after the company refused to turn up to a hearing. But it's not automatic — the decision would have to be approved through the Parliament's internal processes. And individual MEPs can continue to sign in Pfizer lobbyists as private guests. 

But even symbolic moves have their place as the EU's institutions try to repair their recent reputational damage.

"Transparency is essential to ensure our citizens’ trust in the European institutions," Van Brempt explained.
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