From Pfizer to Pieper: With VDL on the defensive, who stands to gain?

Two recent controversies – Pfizergate and Piepergate – have thrown a wrench into Ursula von der Leyen’s re-election bid for the European Commission presidency.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen looks on during her joint press conference with Finnish Prime Minister Petter Orpo at the Lappeenranta airport, eastern Finland, April 19, 2024.

By Julia Kaiser

Julia is a reporter at The Parliament Magazine

19 Apr 2024

Less than two months before the European Parliament elections, two controversies have thrown a wrench into Ursula von der Leyen’s re-election bid for the European Commission presidency.   

On Monday, von der Leyen’s contested pick for the plush role of envoy for small-and-medium sized enterprises, MEP Markus Pieper, resigned hours before he was set to take up the role. Following reports that Pieper won the job over more qualified candidates, von der Leyen faced accusations of favouritism and a revolt from senior commissioners like Thierry Breton. Lawmakers in the European Parliament last week passed a resolution calling on von der Leyen to rescind the appointment and start the selection process anew.  

Von der Leyen’s spokesperson said in a statement that she would “suspend the reopening of the selection procedures” for SME envoy until after the elections.  

Meanwhile, earlier in the month, prosecutors from the European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO) confirmed they’re investigating the Commission president over allegations of "interference in public functions, destruction of SMS, corruption and conflict of interest" in connection with vaccine negotiations with the CEO of Pfizer during the Covid crisis. Belgian investigators had initially launched an investigation in early 2023.  

But with von der Leyen under fire, who of her political rivals stands to benefit – and is her candidacy for a second term really in peril?  

“If there's a potential winner from that, it is the far right,” says Žiga Faktor, deputy director of the Prague-based Europeum Institute for European Policy and head of the think tank’s Brussels office. The allegations of favouritism and corruption could allow far-right politicians to advance a Eurosceptic narrative by calling out senior European officials like von der Leyen for not following their own rules. “And they can again highlight that the EU is actually the bad guy and that there should be more power dedicated to member states,” Faktor argues.   

Still, he doubts that von der Leyen, the lead candidate of the European People’s Party, faces a real threat to re-election. “The others are, in comparison to what the predictions for EP are, much smaller,” he says of the EPP’s lead in the polls over other European groups. “The common understanding [is] that the winner [of the European Parliament elections] should get the seat of the president of the Commission.” 

But Olivier Hoedeman, research and campaign coordinator at Corporate Europe Observatory, estimates that other political groups could capitalize on von der Leyen’s recent controversies. “When a Commission president makes major mistakes and is caught red-handed in several scandals, it creates enormous opportunities,” he says. 

However, her rivals like Nicolas Schmitt – the Socialists & Democrats’ lead candidate for the Commission’s top job – would need to campaign more aggressively against von der Leyen and make the case that her alleged misdeeds go beyond simply “Brussels bubble minor upsets,” Hoedeman argues.  

The Commission president’s woes could also bolster the case for institutional reform, according to Alberto Alemanno, the founder of advocacy group The Good Lobby.  “Let’s imagine von der Leyen is not going to get this second mandate largely because of those scandals, this clearly would create a greater case for reform for the incoming Commission and institution,” he says.   

“It would be almost impossible," Alemanno adds, "not to tackle the root causes of what prevented the outgoing candidate to actually get the job.”  

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