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Commission criticised over Covid-19 lobbying transparency

EU institution says it has ‘no information’ on how many transparency exceptions leaders have made

The European Commission has come under fire for a lack of transparency around lobbying, after being unable to tell Research Professional News whether a breach of its rules earlier this year was a one-off.

Margarida Silva, who researches lobbying transparency for the campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory, said the Commission was “definitely avoiding some sort of scrutiny” in its responses. She said: “It’s definitely not good, it’s not very transparent, it’s not very accountable.”

In April, the Commission admitted that its president Ursula von der Leyen and R&D Commissioner Mariya Gabriel broke the rule in March by holding a conference call with CureVac, a German vaccine manufacturer. At the time, CureVac was at the centre of a media storm over rumours that the United States was trying to acquire exclusive rights to a Covid-19 vaccine it is working on.

“The video-conference with CureVac took place in the context of an unprecedented crisis,” the Commission said in April. “The video conference was organised on the understanding that CureVac would, as a justified exception, register subsequently in the transparency register. The Commission confirms that CureVac did this.”

The Commission told the news website Politico that von der Leyen “also exchanged [views] with other industry and business leaders in recent weeks, in the context of her work to tackle the coronavirus pandemic”.

But the Commission could not tell Research Professional News whether it had made other exceptions.

Asked how many exceptions had been made, which Commission politicians and officials were involved, and which unlisted organisations were communicated with, a spokesperson replied: “We do not have such information.”

They added: “The Commission applies some of the highest standards of transparency. The rule is that all meetings of our political leaders should take place with companies that are on the transparency register. This remains unchanged.”

Asked whether they were aware of any additional exceptions being made, a spokesperson said they had nothing further to add.

Silva said it was not surprising that the Commission had no information on the number of breaches. She said to her mind there were problems with the current transparency system, including over monitoring.

She said Corporate Europe Observatory would like to see an independent ethics body responsible for monitoring and investigating breaches of the rules, which at present apply to commissioners, their personal staff and heads of Commission directorates-general. It would also like the rules extended to cover more people in the Commission.

The Commission declined to comment on Corporate Europe Observatory’s take on the situation or its recommendations.

On the day the call with CureVac took place, the Commission announced it had “offered up to €80 million of financial support” to the company, although this had not yet been signed off by the European Investment Bank, whose vice-president Ambroise Fayolle was also on the call. CureVac subsequently secured a €75 million loan from the EIB that was announced on 23 April.