Politics, Europe

New EU leaders dogged by corruption allegations

New European Council President Antonio Costa faces charges of corruption, lying, and abuse of office related to public procurement

Selen Valente and Ata Ufuk Seker  | 04.07.2024 - Update : 05.07.2024
New EU leaders dogged by corruption allegations Former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa (R), elected as the President of the European Council, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (C), Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kalla (L), elected as the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy meet at Brussels Airport one day after the EU summit in Brussels, Belgium on June 28, 2024


The newly chosen heads of the European Union’s top three institutions have come under public scrutiny due to corruption allegations.

EU leaders recently agreed on appointments for the bloc’s top jobs and adopted a strategic agenda for 2024-2029 at a summit in Brussels.

Portugal’s former Prime Minister Antonio Costa was elected president of the European Council, the highest political entity of the union, where each member state is represented by its leader.

Leaders also nominated German politician Ursula von der Leyen for another term as president of the European Commission, the EU’s main executive body, and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas for the post of foreign policy chief.

Von der Leyen and Kallas will need votes of confidence in the European Parliament.

But what has drawn attention is that the three leaders are all the subject of corruption allegations.

Ursula von der Leyen

Starting in 2020, the European Commission secured large quantities of vaccines from several pharmaceutical and vaccine manufacturers to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

The commission's largest contract for the supply of the vaccines was with nUS company Pfizer.

The EU had contracts worth €35 billion ($37.6 billion) with Pfizer for 1.8 billion doses of the vaccine.

The exact value of the contracts has not been officially disclosed due to trade secrets.

Phone messages between von der Leyen and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla during the vaccine procurement negotiations spurred the allegations against her.

There have been calls for the European Commission to disclose the content of the messages, but it has refused.

Commission officials argue that there is no rule requiring the retention of phone messages of the commission’s president and members but only documents.

Upset by this, Frederic Baldan, a Belgian lobbyist specializing in trade relations between the EU and China, sued von der Leyen in 2023 for mismanagement in her dealings with Pfizer.

The lawsuit involved various charges, including abuse of office in the agreements with Pfizer.

A hearing of the case, which was opened under a criminal complaint filed with prosecutors in Liege, Belgium, was held on May 17.

The court decided to adjourn the trial until Dec. 6 to allow the parties to clarify various technical issues, such as the jurisdiction of the European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO) in the case.

Over time, other complainants joined the legal process.

In this process, there was a request for access to von der Leyen's communication records with Bourla, and allegations of abuse of office and destruction of public documents were also raised.

At the same time, the EPPO, which is responsible for criminal investigations and prosecutions of offenses against the EU budget, launched an investigation into the European Commission's multi-billion-euro purchase of vaccines.

The EPPO argued that the vaccine purchases are a matter of EU financial interest and that it is within its competence to do the investigation. The legal process in the case is ongoing.

Antonio Costa

Costa came to power after Portugal’s January 2022 general elections.

Accused of corruption, lying, and abuse of office, he resigned last November due to an investigation into alleged irregularities committed by his Socialist administration in handling lithium mining and hydrogen projects in the country.

Denying the accusations against him and any involvement in corruption, he said in his resignation statement that during his time as premier, he devoted himself to serving Portugal and the Portuguese people.

Last Nov. 7, 42 locations, including the Prime Minister's Office in the capital Lisbon, were raided under an investigation by the Supreme Court, and Costa's Chief of Staff Vitor Escaria and his close friend businessman Diogo Lacerda Machado were both detained.

The investigation, which has put Costa and several members of his Cabinet under indictment, is said to be related to lithium extraction at the Romano and Barroso mines in northern Portugal and a green hydrogen production plant project in Sines.

Investigation of the case is ongoing.

Kaja Kallas

Kaja Kallas, Estonia’s prime minister since 2021, has been implicated in corruption allegations stemming from the activities of her husband, Arvo Hallik.

Although known as an advocate of the EU's tight economic sanctions on Russia and as anti-Russian, Hallik is alleged to have maintained business ties with Russia despite the war the country launched in Ukraine and the EU sanctions.

The allegations, which Estonian President Alar Karis described as "calling into question the credibility of the state," concern Stark Logistics, a transport company partly owned by Hallik.

The company allegedly acted as an intermediary for another Estonian firm Metaprint, to trade in Russia.

According to Estonian media reports, Metaprint sold $17 million worth of goods to Russia between February 2022, when the Ukrainian war began, and November 2022.

Kallas provided a €350,000 loan to her husband’s company and visited Metaprint several times.

Insisting that she had nothing to do with her husband's business, Kallas said: "My husband and I never discuss business at home."

The allegations contrast with Estonia's fervent support for Ukraine vis-a-vis Russia, Kallas' advocacy of tough sanctions against the Kremlin, and her call to wean the EU off its energy dependence on Russia.

*Writing by Merve Berker

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