EU chief's texts for Covid vaccines under court scrutiny

Von der Leyen is seeking a second term as president of the European Commission (Dimitar DILKOFF)
Von der Leyen is seeking a second term as president of the European Commission (Dimitar DILKOFF)

A Belgian court on Friday heard a lawsuit accusing European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen of secretly negotiating Covid vaccine purchases via text message and arguing she should be barred from a second term.

The case centres on allegations that von der Leyen, at the height of the pandemic, exchanged messages with Pfizer boss Albert Bourla to help arrange the EU's mammoth vaccine purchases.

The EU's ombudsman in January 2022 declared that the commission had been guilty of "maladministration" for failing to identify any such text messages, not making them public -- and claiming that, if they existed, they should not come under its public transparency rules for documents.

The case was brought by a Belgian former lobbyist to the European Parliament, Frederic Baldan. He alleges "destruction of public documents" and argues that von der Leyen both overstepped her role and violated the commission's code of conduct.

Through his lawyer, he urged the court to force von der Leyen's European People's Party (EPP) to withdraw its support for her to get a second, five-year term running the commission.

The EPP did not have a lawyer in court representing it. Contacted by AFP, the political group refused to comment.

The Brussels judge hearing the case said a ruling would be issued before next Thursday. That is when EU leaders are to gather for a summit expected to nominate von der Leyen to a new mandate, following the European elections earlier this month.

- Secret messages -

Baldan, who since 2023 has brought the lawsuit before several Belgian courts and the EU court, says von der Leyen conducted the Pfizer vaccine purchase "by SMS, in secret" without approval from EU member states.

While the EU ombudsman's finding carried no penalty for the commission, the EU prosecutor's office in October 2022 launched a probe into how von der Leyen and the EU set about procuring the Covid vaccines.

Baldan has a case related to the matter that will be heard in December by another Belgian court, in Liege, in which he contests the ability of the EU prosecutor's office to effectively investigate.

The alleged exchange of text messages between von der Leyen and Bourla was revealed by the New York Times in 2021. The US newspaper last year sued the commission for failing to release the messages.

The EU acted swiftly after the Covid pandemic struck in 2020 to secure vaccines for member countries to buy for their citizens and residents, with the commission tapping Pfizer as the main supplier.

Many aspects of the vaccine procurement have been kept confidential.

The commission, by late 2021, had signed 71 billion euros ($76 billion) worth of contracts for the joint procurement of 4.6 billion doses, according to the European Court of Auditors.

"The heart of the process were the preliminary negotiations that took place before a tender invitation was sent out," the official auditor said in a 2022 report.