The EU Gravy Train keeps chugging along: EU President-elect and Commission nominees face questions over corruption and scandal

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The EU Gravy Train keeps chugging along: EU President-elect and Commission nominees face questions over corruption and scandal

Several nominees including the president-elect herself will soon face questioning from authorities

President-elect Von der Leyen and some of her nominees are likely to be grilled in the coming weeks and months by investigators and parliamentary committees as part of ongoing inquiries in Brussels or in their home countries that in some cases threaten to derail their candidacies.

Opposition parties in the German Bundestag have agreed to launch a parliamentary investigation into former Defense Minister and now EU President-elect Ursula von der Leyen’s role in a spending scandal involving her ministry’s allocation of lucrative contracts.

Lawmakers from the Greens, Left Party and business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) approved the move after von der Leyen gave an “inadequate” testimony on the affair at a Defense Committee hearing Wednesday, Left lawmaker Alexander Neu said.

Von der Leyen, a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), admitted in November that her ministry had made mistakes in allocating contracts to external consultants worth hundreds of millions of euros. Stating:

“There were violations of the provisions guarding the awarding of contracts,” von der Leyen said.

“The involvement of external parties did not always proceed correctly. That should not be allowed to happen.”

The investigative committee will examine irregularities in a contract awarded to McKinsey and a €390 million ($442 million) IT contract given to another company that failed to pass through the company’s supervisory board as required.

It will also investigate whether von der Leyen committed nepotism by hiring Katrin Suder, a former McKinsey consultant, as her deputy to oversee the ministry’s arms procurement section.

Other nominees do not fair any better and are dogged with scandal and corruption charges.

Sylvie Goulard

Former French defense minister Sylvie Goulard | Bertrand Guay/AFP via Getty Images

The Commission nominees are under scrutiny, at the same time as von der Leyen was preparing to unveil her roster of commissioners at a news conference in Brussels, one of the most prominent names on her list, Sylvie Goulard, a former French defense minister and ex-MEP, appeared at a police station in Nanterre, a suburb west of Paris, where she was submitted to questioning about allegations that she and other French MEPs employed assistants with EU funds who were actually doing work for their national parties in France.

Goulard, a close, early ally of President Emmanuel Macron, resigned as defense minister in June 2017 to defend herself  in the case, in which she reportedly reimbursed the Parliament €45,000.

Her submission for questioning, accompanied by a lawyer, on the same day that her name was put forward to be the commissioner in charge of the internal market, overseeing what leaders consider to be a premier benefit of membership in the European Union, was a particularly dramatic illustration of legal troubles facing some of von der Leyen’s team.

Goulard quit her post as defence minister barely a month into the job after an investigation was opened into the way her political party, MoDem, hired parliamentary assistants in the European Parliament.

The former MEP previously reimbursed the European Parliament “seven to eight months worth of salaries” amid evidence that some allowances “had been paid without justification”.

But Goulard is hardly the only one in hot water.

 

Janusz Wojciechowski

Von der Leyen’s pick for new agriculture commissioner is also under investigation by the EU’s anti-fraud agency. OLAF told Germany’s Der Spiegel that Poland’s candidate was being investigated for alleged irregularities in the reimbursement of travel expenses.

Wojciechowski said in a statement published on his Twitter account that he returned over €11,000 to the European Parliament in 2016 “on his own initiative” because he noticed that there was a risk of mistake in his declaration of travel expenses. He said he paid back the money “without anyone demanding him to.”

The allegations date back to when Wojciechowski was an MEP from 2004 to 2014.

The commission candidate went on to say that in March 2018, OLAF informed him about their examination of his travel expenses between 2009 and 2016, adding that he handed all necessary documents upon their request.

According to Wojciechowski, in May 2019, OLAF sent him a summary of facts after the investigation was closed.

“It says clearly that there were only formal mistakes in my declarations to the EP — mistakes in writing and in calculating,” he said, adding the mistakes included things like his car’s registration number or the wrong mileage of his car after travel.

He said that the mistakes were “unintentional” and caused “no damages to the EP”.

Wojciechowski said he has asked OLAF to disclose the case document so the public can see that it was just a case of some “formal mistakes” and not “deliberate abuses”.

In both cases, OLAF told said that “the investigations did not mean that any persons/entities involved have committed an irregularity/fraud”.

“OLAF fully respects the presumption of innocence and the rights of defence of the persons/entities concerned by an investigation.”

Josep Borrell

Josep Borrell, the candidate to be EU Foreign Policy Chief — was forced to leave the board of renewable energy group Abengoa when it was disbanded due to the protocols of bankruptcy, which the group declared soon after.

Borrell acknowledged that the sale “was not adequate” at the time it was made, not because of “the appearance of irregularity” it could have generated, but rather he described it as “a minor problem” that did not affect his “suitability to exercise the ministerial function”.

For the 2000 presidential elections in Spain, he was named candidate from the socialist party. He withdrew his candidature amid financial scandals involving two of his former co-workers.

Spain’s securities regulator sanctioned Foreign Affairs minister Josep Borrell after he ordered the sale of €9,000 of a renewable energy company shares, Abengoa.

Borrell, a fomer president of the European Parliament, had access to private information of the company as board member, the securities regulator confirmed in a statement.

The shares sold were not directly from Borrell, but from a person close to him. The sale was made back in 2015 and an investigation started in July 2017.

According to the securities regulator, Borrell “was a board member of the company and he knew price sensitive information that had not yet been disclosed.”

“This is corruption,” says Catalan vice president

The Catalan vice president and minister of the Economy, Pere Aragonès, accused Borrell of “business corruption” following the scandal.

“Using privileged information of a company for personal or familiar benefit and against that company is business corruption,” said Aragonès on Twitter. “Borrell should resign,” he added.

The Borrell case is a new blow to the Spanish government, which in his first months in office has already seen two ministers forced to step down.

Laszlo Trocsanyi

Former Hungarian justice minister, Laszlo Trocsanyi, has been nominated to be the EU commissioner for enlargement. He is known as a defender of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s so-called illiberal state. He defended fierce anti-migration and anti-NGO laws. Speaking to Euronews in 2014 he defended the government’s record on rule of law.

“We just want one thing, to avoid that politicians decide about rule of law. If there is a political debate, there are always political aspects behind it. As I said, I am a lawyer, and I’m proud to be a lawyer. Therefore I think if there are questions related to the rule of law, it has to have a legal nature.”

Rovana Plumb

Rovana Plumb, the proposed transport commissioner, is a veteran Romanian government minister who was named in a corruption case in 2017, in which she was accused of aiding the leader of her Social Democratic party in an illicit real estate deal involving ownership of an island in the Danube River.

Plumb resigned as Minister for European Funds on 2017 together with Sevil Shhaideh, the Deputy Prime Minister. The two are suspected of transferring land near the River Danube to a local council that was then illegally leased to a private company. Both deny wrongdoing.

Former Romanian deputy prime minister Sevil Shhaideh was officially indicted for abuse of office with serious consequences in a case related to the transfer of an island on the Danube from the Environment Ministry to the Teleorman County Council and then to a private company, in 2013.

Shhaideh, who was a state secretary within the Regional Development Ministry at that time, drafted a government decision that allowed the Belina Island, a land area of over 80 hectares, to be transferred from the Romanian Waters company to the Teleorman County Council, which then leased it for ten years to local construction company Tel Drum, believed to be controlled by Social Democratic Party (PSD) leader Liviu Dragnea. The damage in this case is estimated at some RON 3.2 million (EUR 690,000), according to the anticorruption prosecutors.

Ionela Stoian, a former director within the Regional Development Ministry, and Adrian Ionut Gadea, the former president of Teleorman County Council, were also indicted for complicity to abuse of office.

The National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) started prosecuting Shhaideh and former environment minister Rovana Plumb in this case last year. As a result, both ministers were removed from the Mihai Tudose cabinet. However, Shhaideh is now an advisor to prime minister Viorica Dancila while Rovana Plumb is the EU funds minister.

Why did you not just turn them down?

That investigation, and scrutiny of the allegations against nominees by the EU’s anti-fraud agency OLAF, prompted one of the more uncomfortable questions for the president-elect, during her nearly two-hour long news conference on Tuesday.

“In your team, there are a number of commissioners who are questionable, a couple of them are subject to an OLAF inquiry or investigation,” a reporter asked.

“Why did you not just turn them down?

Because otherwise your Commission might already have this tarnished image, including people who are suspected of having committed fraud, even if they are presumed innocent.”

In posing the question, the reporter invoked a reference to the Commission of Jacques Santer, which was forced to resign in March 1999 over a corruption scandal centered on the French commissioner, former Prime Minister Édith Cresson. It was hardly the sort of comparison von der Leyen wanted as she announced her new team, even as Plumb and Wojciechowski denied any wrongdoing.

“I am not going to comment on OLAF’s investigations because they are entirely independent, they will conclude their work and we will listen to what they have to say.” — Ursula von der Leyen

“OLAF is an independent body and that’s how it should be,” von der Leyen said. “One is always presumed to be innocent, as you quite rightly pointed out.”

That presumption is of importance to von der Leyen personally, as she faces grilling by the German parliament over allegations of misspending and mismanagement during her tenure at the German Defense Ministry, which she led for five-and-half years before being tapped in early July as the first woman to head the European Commission.

An investigative committee of the German parliament is examining how lucrative defense ministry contracts were awarded  to high-priced outside consultants without proper oversight and whether a network of informal personal connections involving some ministry officials facilitated those deals. The committee plans to subpoena von der Leyen and summon her to Berlin for questioning, likely in December. LINK

The scandal at the defense ministry was known but played little role in deliberations among national EU leaders when they decided to propose von der Leyen for the EU’s top executive position.

One EU official waved off the suggestion that the European Council should have engaged in more thorough vetting, saying that it was impossible to find anyone with a career in politics who had not faced some sort of criticism or charges.

At the news conference on Tuesday, von der Leyen similarly sought to use the Council’s blessing of her Commission nominees as evidence that she had assembled a solid roster, though she conceded that ultimately the investigations would run their course.

“Finally, let me say that the list of commissioners proposed was accepted by the Council, which is always necessary,” she said. “I think we have an excellent list of men and women. I am not going to comment on OLAF’s investigations because they are entirely independent, they will conclude their work and we will listen to what they have to say.”

You Cannot Fool All the People All the Time

Some MEPs have already reached their verdicts on von der Leyen’s more controversial nominees.

Dacian Cioloș, a former Romanian prime minister and EU agriculture commissioner who is now leader of the liberal-centrist Renew Europe group in the European Parliament, said he had warned von der Leyen against accepting Bucharest’s nomination of Plumb. In an interview on Wednesday, Cioloș told the media that he would vote against the Romanian nominee and would urge members of his group to do the same.

“I believe that it is a bad signal sent to our European partners to give the impression that someone who is not qualified, or who is not free enough, from a legal standpoint to be a minister can take responsibility for a job at European Commission level.” — François-Xavier Bellamy, French MEP

“I know Rovana Plumb,” Cioloș said, dismissing suggestions that he should support her out of some sense of national solidarity. “How can I be sure she will represent European values?”

Precisely how much difficulty von der Leyen’s nominees will face on the path to confirmation remains to be seen. But some Parliament insiders predict bitter fights in the new, more highly-divided assembly, as MEPs line up to torpedo nominees from rival political groups.

Of von der Leyen’s choices, 10 are center-left social democrats; nine are from her own center-right European People’s Party; six are affiliated to Renew Europe, while one, the Lithuanian nominee, is nominally from the Greens.

Others said that troubled nominees might win confirmation more easily than expected — as part of an agreement among the political groups to hold their noses and get everyone’s candidates installed in the new Commission.

So far, the first scenario — of confirmation hearings potentially turning into a fierce, partisan brawl — seems more likely.

Cioloș, for instance, said he had accepted the explanations from Goulard, a member of his own political family, regarding the allegations against her and would support her nomination, because ultimately it was clear to him that she respected the EU’s rules — as evidenced by her reimbursement of EU funds.

But François-Xavier Bellamy, a prominent French MEP from the conservative Les Républicains party, said the charges raised questions about Goulard’s fitness for office, despite her long and accomplished resume in EU affairs.

“I believe that it is a bad signal sent to our European partners to give the impression that someone who is not qualified, or who is not free enough, from a legal standpoint to be a minister can take responsibility for a job at European Commission level,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ismail Ertug, a German center-left MEP, defended Plumb, his fellow socialist, and suggested some conservatives were leveling false accusations against her. “We’ll have to make it clear that the  Romanian anti-corruption authority has dropped the case,” Ertug said in an interview. “That has to be taken into account.”

Still, Ertug said all of the allegations would be scrutinized by Parliament. “At the end of the day, everyone will be examined,” he said. “We are at the beginning of the process. Crunch time will start as early as next week in Strasbourg.”

Von der Leyen, at her news conference on Tuesday, declined to make any predictions about the confirmation process, though she acknowledged some nominees have their work cut out for them.

“I know that it is a very important process of the hearings in the European Parliament and each commissioner, each vice president will have to convince,” she said.

Whichever way you look at it from a Left wing PERSPECTIVE IT’S just more corruption on the gravy train.

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