Von der Leyen faces Socialist revolt over her far-right flirtation with Meloni

Europe’s Socialists have warned Ursula von der Leyen they won’t back her for a second term as European Commission president if she continues to suggest she could work with hard-right MEPs aligned with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

Perhaps most crucially — just as French President Emmanuel Macron visits Germany to try to forge Franco-German consensus on Europe’s political landscape after the June 6 to 9 election — even Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his Social Democratic Party are signaling that they are willing to torpedo a second term for von der Leyen.

Some even have a replacement in mind: former Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi. And that’s a choice that will go down well in Paris.

In multiple comments over recent days, high-ranking Socialists including Scholz and the SPD lead candidate for next month’s EU election Katarina Barley threatened to scuttle von der Leyen’s candidacy if she accepts the backing of the hard right to secure a majority in the European Parliament.

“We will not work with the far right,” Barley said on the Berlin Playbook podcast, reiterating the pledge made by the Socialists and Democrats, Renew Europe, the Greens and the Left to “never cooperate nor form a coalition with the far right and radical parties at any level.”

The comment was the latest sign of the left-leaning parties’ alarm at von der Leyen’s stance on Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, which belongs to the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group in the European Parliament.

Von der Leyen, who hails from the center-right European People’s Party, has indicated that if she fails to secure a majority with the backing of center-left and liberal lawmakers after the EU election, she could work with the ECR

On Friday, Scholz warned von der Leyen against such a move, saying: “When the next Commission is formed, it must not be based on a majority that also needs the support of the far right.” He added that “the only way to establish a Commission presidency will be to base it on the traditional parties.”

Putting the boot in further, Nicolas Schmit, the Socialists’ lead candidate for the EU election, said in an interview published Sunday: “Von der Leyen wants us to believe that there are good right-wing extremists and bad ones.”

Meloni is “politically extremely right wing” and her vision is “certainly not a strong, integrated Europe,” Schmit said. “For Ms. von der Leyen, however, she is probably a conservative.”

The questions now are whether Scholz and his German Socialists would actually kibosh a second term for fellow German von der Leyen — and who they might have in mind to replace her.

One potential challenger to the incumbent is Draghi, the former European Central Bank chief.

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS

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For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Just last week, Draghi received the backing of one of Emmanuel Macron’s closest allies, Pascal Canfin, an MEP from the French president’s liberal Renaissance party who is known to have a direct line to the Élysée.

Asked by POLITICO whether France supports von der Leyen’s reelection bid, Canfin said: “France and everyone in the presidential ecosystem would like Draghi to play a role.”

Macron has long been rumored to be maneuvering to put Draghi at the head of the EU executive — and now he appears to have allies in Berlin.

Markus Töns, a German MP from the Social Democrats, told POLITICO’s Brussels Decoded: “Draghi has experience at the European level and knows the current challenges. I would have no problem seeing him in this position — he might even be better than Ursula von der Leyen.”

Ralf Stegner, an influential SPD member of the Bundestag, on Friday said: “If Emmanuel Macron is critical of another term for Ursula von der Leyen, who lacks sufficient clarity regarding alliances with the right-wing bloc, I have every sympathy for him.”

With both Paris and Berlin expressing dissatisfaction with her stance on working with the ECR, von der Leyen’s bid for a second term as Commission chief faces a serious challenge.

While von der Leyen is the EPP’s lead candidate going into the EU election, in theory making her a shoo-in for the post, she will require support from European leaders like Scholz, Macron and Meloni to secure it.

The electoral arithmetic is difficult as she will need 361 votes in an approval vote in the European Parliament, and the EPP is on course only for some 176 seats. The Socialists and Democrats are expected to win 144 and von der Leyen’s prospects will be in severe trouble if the center-left MEPs do not support her.

If they do decide to forgo EPP lead candidate von der Leyen in favor of a curveball, it wouldn’t be the first time: That was precisely the way von der Leyen herself got the job after the 2019 EU election, installed after leaders shunned the EPP’s Manfred Weber.

Macron is currently in Germany for the first state visit with full ceremonial honors by a French president in 24 years. Macron will meet Scholz in Berlin on Tuesday.

It’s hard to believe there won’t be any mention of the electoral mathematics — and of Meloni and Draghi.

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Beyond forgetfulness: Why we must act on Alzheimer’s disease now

In the face of an increasingly aging population, today’s reality reveals a harsh truth: health systems in the EU and beyond are ill-equipped to provide early and timely diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and embrace innovative treatments that could help to preserve memory and, with it, independence.  

Recent advances suggest that timely intervention may hold the promise to slow the memory decline in Alzheimer’s disease, making early diagnosis more critical than ever before. Yet without the necessary health care infrastructure in place to diagnose and provide treatment, we risk missing the crucial early window and the opportunity to delay — and hopefully in the near future prevent — distressing symptoms for patients and heartbreaking experiences for families.  

The EU and its member countries have the opportunity to be remembered for leading in this space by increasing funding for research, improving health care infrastructure to support accurate diagnosis and timely intervention, and enhancing support services at a national and regional level. The forthcoming European Parliament elections in June 2024 are the ideal moments to make that pledge. For individuals, families and health care systems, Alzheimer’s disease is a ticking time bomb unless we invest in our future health today.  

The EU is not prepared for Alzheimer’s disease  

In Europe, approximately 7 million people are affected by Alzheimer’s disease, a number set to double to 14 million by 2050.1 On top of the physical and emotional distress this will cause, there are direct financial and social implications on families and communities, with Alzheimer’s costs expected to reach a staggering €250 billion by 20302 — bigger than the GDP of Portugal3 — placing an additional and substantial weight on global health care systems that are already struggling under cost and capacity burdens.4 

Timely diagnosis stands as a cornerstone in determining the appropriate treatment for patients.

That’s why MEP Deirdre Clune is leading the call for a European Parliament hearing to discuss a focused EU strategy on dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. “Timely diagnosis stands as a cornerstone in determining the appropriate treatment for patients,” argues Clune. “Therefore, the EU must create a strategic framework which lays out clear recommendations for national governments and recognises the toll of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease on societies across Europe, encourage innovation and take on board best practices to develop effective and efficient approaches. Together, with a unified approach and firm commitment, the EU can pave the way for better Alzheimer’s care.”

In the next EU political mandate, policymakers must answer the call by developing a comprehensive EU Beating Dementia Plan that specifically addresses the unique challenges posed by Alzheimer’s disease and building on established coordinated action plans for other significant health burdens, such as the EU Beating Cancer Plan. The European Brain Council and EFPIA’s, RETHINKING Alzheimer’s disease White Paper is a useful resource, calling for policymakers to rethink Alzheimer’s and offering policy recommendations to make tangible changes to improve the lives of people living with the disease.  

EU member countries must commit to investing in diagnostic infrastructure, technology and integrated care that can help to detect Alzheimer’s disease at an early stage and ensure timely intervention resulting in the preservation of memory and, thereof, independent living and normal social functioning.  

Laying the foundations at national level  

While action is certainly needed at the EU level, huge opportunity lies at the national and regional levels. Each member country has the chance to apply well-funded national dementia plans that tailor their strategies and responses to address the distinct needs of their populations, making a real and meaningful impact on the people and health systems in their country.  

Inspiration stems from Italy, which recently launched its Parliamentary Intergroup for Neuroscience and Alzheimer’s, dedicating its efforts to raising awareness, fostering discussions among national and regional institutions, promoting clinician and patient involvement, supporting novel research, implementing new diagnostic models, and strengthening patient access to care. 

Italian MP Annarita Patriarca, co-host of the Parliamentary Intergroup, affirms: “Primary responsibility of a member state is to ensure to all citizens the greatest standards of diagnosis and access to treatment and care. Thus, it is necessary to put in place a strong collaboration between the public and private sector to strengthen investments in neurological diseases. Improving patients’ diagnostic and care pathways, especially in a disease area like AD with such a high unmet medical need and societal impact will be the core focus of the intergroup.” 

Additionally, during the Alzheimer’s and Neuroscience Conference: a priority for the country in July, members of the Italian Parliament importantly put forward legislative and regulatory solutions to ensure an early and accurate diagnosis. 

Leading the conversation on the international stage   

Amid the growing burden of Alzheimer’s disease globally, this is a moment for policymakers to hold each other accountable. Member countries are uniquely placed to do this within the EU but also across the wider health care ecosystem, calling on countries and leaders to honor prior commitments that prioritized investment in relieving major health burdens, including Alzheimer’s.  

Encouragingly, the May G7 Hiroshima Leaders’ Communiqué specifically recognized and supported dementia as a freestanding issue, breaking away from the typical categorization with NCDs. Moreover, the G7 health ministers published a joint Communiqué spotlighting the priority to “enhance early detection, diagnosis and interventions, including developing care pathways and capability and capacity building of health and primary care providers by strengthening primary health care (PHC)”.  

These promising steps mean that Alzheimer’s disease is beginning to gain the recognition it deserves but also acts as a line in the sand to ensure complacency doesn’t creep in. Collectively, EU countries must assume a leading voice within the international fora, ensuring that Alzheimer’s disease remains a global health care priority and receives the investment it warrants. 

Time to commit to action in Alzheimer’s disease  

September marks World Alzheimer’s Month, and its theme Never Too Early, Never Too Late, reiterates the importance of early diagnosis. It presents a valuable foundation to initiate discussions on country- and regional-level strategies to drive and strengthen diagnostic infrastructure and services for the prevention, diagnosis, case management, monitoring and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. 

Unless we act now, a generation of people will be forgotten as they begin to lose their memories.

“Unless we act now, a generation of people will be forgotten as they begin to lose their memories,” shares Frédéric Destrebecq, executive director of The European Brain Council. “By recognizing the urgency of the situation and making concerted investments, we can forge a path toward a more compassionate, empowered future for individuals, families and communities impacted by Alzheimer’s, and remember all those who’ve been lost to this devastating disease.”

It is never too early, never too late, to be remembered for taking action against this debilitating disease.  

References:  

1 – Jones RW, Mackell J, Berthet K, Knox S. Assessing attitudes and behaviours surrounding Alzheimer’s disease in Europe: key findings of the Important Perspectives on Alzheimer’s Care and Treatment (IMPACT) survey. The journal of nutrition, health & aging. 2010 Aug;14:525-30.  

2 – Cimler R, Maresova P, Kuhnova J, Kuca K. Predictions of Alzheimer’s disease treatment and care costs in European countries. PLoS One. 2019;14(1):e0210958. Published 2019 Jan 25. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0210958 

3 – Published by Statista Research Department, 20 J. GDP of European countries 2022. Statista. June 20, 2023. Accessed August 1, 2023. https://www.statista.com/statistics/685925/gdp-of-european-countries/. 

4 – The Economist. Why health-care services are in chaos everywhere. Available at:  https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2023/01/15/why-health-care-services-are-in-chaos-everywhere. Accessed: July 2023.  



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The EU’s reply to Qatargate: Nips, tucks and paperwork

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STRASBOURG — The European Parliament’s response to Qatargate: Fight corruption with paperwork.

When Belgian police made sweeping arrests and recovered €1.5 million from Parliament members in a cash-for-influence probe last December, it sparked mass clamoring for a deep clean of the institution, which has long languished with lax ethics and transparency rules, and even weaker enforcement.

Seven months later, the Parliament and its president, Roberta Metsola, can certainly claim to have tightened some rules — but the results are not much to shout about. With accused MEPs Eva Kaili and Marc Tarabella back in the Parliament and even voting on ethics changes themselves, the reforms lack the political punch to take the sting out of a scandal that Euroskeptic forces have leaped on ahead of the EU election next year.

“Judge us on what we’ve done rather [than] on what we didn’t,” Metsola told journalists earlier this month, arguing that Parliament has acted swiftly where it could. 

While the Parliament can claim some limited improvements, calls for a more profound overhaul in the EU’s only directly elected institution — including more serious enforcement of existing rules — have been met with finger-pointing, blame-shifting and bureaucratic slow-walking. 

The Parliament dodged some headline-worthy proposals in the process. It declined to launch its own inquiry into what really happened, it decided not to force MEPs to declare their assets and it won’t be stripping any convicted MEPs of their gold-plated pensions.

Instead, the institution favored more minimal nips and tucks. The rule changes amount to much more bureaucracy and more potential alarm bells to spot malfeasance sooner — but little in the way of stronger enforcement of ethics rules for MEPs.

EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, who investigates complaints about EU administration lamented that the initial sense of urgency to adopt strict reforms had “dissipated.” After handing the EU a reputational blow, she argued, the scandal’s aftermath offered a pre-election chance, “to show that lessons have been learned and safeguards have been put in place.”

Former MEP Richard Corbett, who co-wrote the Socialists & Democrats group’s own inquiry into Qatargate and favors more aggressive reforms, admitted he isn’t sure whether Parliament will get there.  

“The Parliament is getting to grips with this gradually, muddling its way through the complex field, but it’s too early to say whether it will do what it should,” he said. 

Bags of cash

The sense of resignation that criminals will be criminals was only one of the starting points that shaped the Parliament’s response. 

“We will never be able to prevent people taking bags of cash. This is human nature. What we have to do is create a protection network,” said Raphaël Glucksmann, a French MEP who sketched out some longer-term recommendations he hopes the Parliament will take up. 

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS

For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Another is that the Belgian authorities’ painstaking judicial investigation is still ongoing, with three MEPs charged and a fourth facing imminent questioning. Much is unknown about how the alleged bribery ring really operated, or what the countries Qatar, Morocco and Mauritania really got for their bribes.

On top of that, Parliament was occasionally looking outward rather than inward for people to blame. 

Metsola’s message in the wake of the scandal was that EU democracy was “under attack” by foreign forces. The emphasis on “malign actors, linked to autocratic third countries” set the stage for the Parliament’s response to Qatargate: blame foreign interference, not an integrity deficit. 

Instead of creating a new panel to investigate how corruption might have steered Parliament’s work, Parliament repurposed an existing committee on foreign interference and misinformation to probe the matter. The result was a set of medium- and long-term recommendations that focus as much on blocking IT contractors from Russia and China as they do on holding MEPs accountable — and they remain merely recommendations. 

Metsola did also turn inward, presenting a 14-point plan in January she labeled as “first steps” of a promised ethics overhaul. The measures are a finely tailored lattice-work of technical measures that could make it harder for Qatargate to happen again, primarily by making it harder to lobby the Parliament undetected.

The central figure in Qatargate, an Italian ex-MEP called Pier Antonio Panzeri, enjoyed unfettered access to the Parliament, using it to give prominence to his human rights NGO Fight Impunity, which held events and even struck a collaboration deal with the institution. 

This 14-point package, which Metsola declared is now “done,” includes a new entry register, a six-month cooling-off period banning ex-MEPs from lobbying their colleagues, tighter rules for events, stricter scrutiny of human rights work — all tailored to ensure a future Panzeri hits a tripwire and can be spotted sooner.

Notably, however, an initial idea to ban former MEPs from lobbying for two years after leaving office — which would mirror the European Commission’s rules — instead turned into just a six-month “cooling off” period.

Internal divisions

Behind the scenes, the house remains sharply divided over just how much change is needed. Many MEPs resisted bigger changes to how they conduct their work, despite Metsola’s promise in December that there would be “no business as usual,” which she repeated in July.  

The limited ambition reflects an argument — pushed by a powerful subset of MEPs, primarily in Metsola’s large, center-right European People’s Party group — that changing that “business as usual” will only tie the hands of innocent politicians while doing little to stop the few with criminal intent. They’re bolstered by the fact that the Socialists & Democrats remain the only group touched by the scandal.

“There were voices in this house who said, ‘Do nothing, these things will always happen, things are fine as they are,’” Metsola said. Some of the changes, she said, had been “resisted for decades” before Qatargate momentum pushed them through. 

The Parliament already has some of the Continent’s highest standards for legislative bodies, said Rainer Wieland, a long-serving EPP member from Germany who sits on the several key rule-making committees: “I don’t think anyone can hold a candle to us.”

MEP Rainer Wieland holds lots of sway over the reforms | Patrick Seeger/EFE via EPA

Those who are still complaining, he added in a debate last week, “are living in wonderland.”

Wieland holds lots of sway over the reforms. He chairs an internal working group on the Parliament’s rules that feeds into the Parliament’s powerful Committee on Constitutional Affairs, where Metsola’s 14-point plan will be translated into cold, hard rules. 

Those rule changes are expected to be adopted by the full Parliament in September. 

The measures will boost existing transparency rules significantly. The lead MEP on a legislative file will soon have to declare (and deal with) potential conflicts of interest, including those coming from their “emotional life.” And more MEPs will have to publish their meetings related to parliamentary business, including those with representatives from outside the EU. 

Members will also have to disclose outside income over €5,000 — with additional details about the sector if they work in something like law or consulting. 

Negotiators also agreed to double potential penalties for breaches: MEPs can lose their daily allowance and be barred from most parliamentary work for up to 60 days. 

Yet the Parliament’s track record punishing MEPs who break the rules is virtually nonexistent.

As it stands, an internal advisory committee can recommend a punishment, but it’s up to the president to impose it. Of 26 breaches of transparency rules identified over the years, not one MEP has been punished. (Metsola has imposed penalties for things like harassment and hate speech.) 

And hopes for an outside integrity cop to help with enforcement were dashed when a long-delayed Commission proposal for an EU-wide independent ethics body was scaled back. 

Stymied by legal constraints and left-right divides within the Parliament, the Commission opted for suggesting a standards-setting panel that, at best, would pressure institutions into better policing their own rules.

“I really hate listening to some, especially members of the European Parliament, who say that ‘Without having the ethics body, we cannot behave ethical[ly],’” Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová lamented in June.

Metsola, for her part, has pledged to adhere to the advisory committee’s recommendations going forward. But MEPs from across the political spectrum flagged the president’s complete discretion to mete out punishments as unsustainable.

“The problem was not (and never really was) [so] much the details of the rules!!! But the enforcement,” French Green MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield — who sits in the working group — wrote to POLITICO.

Wieland, the German EPP member on the rule-making committees, presented the situation more matter-of-factly: Parliament had done what it said it would do.

“We fully delivered” on Metsola’s plan, Wieland told POLITICO in an interview. “Not more than that.”



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Eva Kaili is back with a new story: There’s a conspiracy

ATHENS — Eva Kaili is spinning up a new, eyebrow-raising narrative: Authorities might have targeted her because she knew too much about government spying.

After months of silence during her detention and house arrest, the most high-profile suspect in the cash-for-influence Qatargate scandal was suddenly everywhere over the weekend. 

Across a trio of interviews in the European media, the Greek European Parliament member was keen to proclaim her innocence, saying she never took any of the alleged bribes that authorities say countries such as Qatar and Morocco used to sway the Brussels machinery. 

But she also had a story to tell even darker than Qatargate, one involving insinuations of nefarious government spying and suggestions that maybe, just maybe, her jailing was politically motivated. Her work investigating the illegal use of Pegasus spyware in Europe, she argued, put her in the crosshairs of Europe’s own governments. 

“From the court file, my lawyers have discovered that the Belgian secret services have allegedly been monitoring the activities of members of the Pegasus special committee,” she told the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera.

“The fact that elected members of Parliament are being spied on by the secret services should raise more concerns about the health of our European democracy,” she added. “I think this is the ‘real scandal.’”

As Kaili reemerges and starts pointing the finger back at the government, the Belgian prosecutor’s office has decided to remain mum. A spokesperson on Monday said the prosecutor’s office was “not going to respond” to Kaili’s allegations. 

“This would violate the confidentiality of the investigation and the presumption of innocence,” the spokesperson added. “The evidence will be presented in court in due course.”

But her PR blitz is nonetheless a likely preview of Qatargate’s next chapter: The battle to win the public narrative.

A European media tour

In addition to her interview with the Italian press, Kaili also appeared in the Spanish and French press, where she expanded on her spying theory. 

In a video interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, Kaili said her legal team has evidence the entire PEGA committee was being watched illegally, arguing she does not know how the police intercepted certain conversations between her and other politicians. 

“I was not spied on with Pegasus, but for Pegasus,” she said. “We believe Morocco, Spain, France and Belgium spied on the European Parliament’s committee,” she told El Mundo.

Kaili’s assertions have not been backed up by public evidence. But she didn’t equivocate as she pointed the finger.

“The fact that security services surveilled elected members of Parliament should raise enormous concerns over the state of European democracy,” Kaili said. “This goes beyond the personal: We have to defend the European Parliament and the work of its members.”

Kaili was jailed in December as part of a deep corruption probe Belgian authorities were conducting into whether foreign countries were illegally influencing the European Parliament’s work. Her arrest came after the Belgian police recovered €150,000 in cash from her apartment — where she lived with her partner, Francesco Giorgi, who was also arrested — and a money-stuffed bag her father had.

The Greek politician flatly dismissed the charges across her interviews.

“No country has ever offered me money and I have never been bribed. Not even Russia, as has been alleged,” she told El Mundo. “My lawyers and I believe this was a police operation based on false evidence.”

According to her arrest warrant, Kaili was suspected of being “the primary organizer or co-organizer” of public corruption and money laundering.

“Eva Kaili told the journalist of ‘El Mundo’ not to publish her interview, until she gave them the final OK; unfortunately, the agreement was not honored,” her lawyer Michalis Dimitrakopoulos said on Monday.

Flying in on a Pegasus (committee)

The allegations — Kaili’s first major push to spin her arrest — prompted plenty of incredulity, including from those who worked with her on the Pegasus, or PEGA, committee. It especially befuddled those who recalled that Kaili had faced accusations of undermining the committee’s work. 

“I have absolutely no reason to believe the Belgian intelligence services spied on PEGA,” said Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld, who helped prepare the committee’s final report. “Everything we do is public anyway. And we have our phones checked regularly, it makes absolutely no sense.”

Kaili’s decision to invoke her PEGA Committee work is intriguing as it taps into a controversial period of her career. 

While the panel was deep into its work in 2022, Greece was weathering its own persistent espionage scandal, which erupted after the government acknowledged it had wiretapped the leader of Kaili’s own party, Pasok. 

Yet Kaili perplexed many when she started publicly arguing in response that surveillance was common and happens across Europe, echoing the talking points of the ruling conservative government instead of her own socialist party. She also encouraged the PEGA panel not to visit Greece as part of its investigation.

The arrest warrant for MEP Andrea Cozzolino also mentions the alleged influence ringleader, former Parliament member Pier Antonio Panzeri, discussed getting Kaili on the PEGA Committee to help advance Moroccan interests (Morocco has been accused of illegally using the spyware).

A war of words?

Kaili’s media tour raises questions about how the Qatargate probe will unfold in the coming months. 

Eventually, Kaili and the other suspects will likely face trial, where authorities will have a chance to present their evidence. But until then, the suspects will have a chance to shape and push their preferred narrative — depending on what limits the court places on their public statements.

In recent weeks, Kaili has moved from jail to house arrest to an increasingly unrestricted life, allowing her more chances to opine on the case. Her lawyers also claim she will soon be back at work at the Parliament, although she is banned from leaving Belgium for Parliament’s sessions in Strasbourg.

Pieter Haeck, Eddy Wax, Antoaneta Roussi and Barbara Moens contributed reporting.



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Moldova ramps up EU membership push amid fears of Russia-backed coup

CHIȘINĂU, Moldova — Tens of thousands of Moldovans descended on the central square of the capital on Sunday, waving flags and homemade placards in support of the country’s push to join the EU and make a historic break with Moscow.

With Russia’s war raging just across the border in Ukraine, the government of this tiny Eastern European nation called the rally in an effort to overcome internal divisions and put pressure on Brussels to begin accession talks, almost a year after Moldova was granted EU candidate status.

“Joining the EU is the best way to protect our democracy and our institutions,” Moldova’s President Maia Sandu told POLITICO at Chișinău’s presidential palace, as a column of her supporters marched past outside. “I call on the EU to take a decision on beginning accession negotiations by the end of the year. We think we have enough support to move forward.”

Speaking alongside Sandu at what was billed as a “national assembly,” European Parliament President Roberta Metsola declared that “Europe is Moldova. Moldova is Europe!” The crowd, many holding Ukrainian flags and the gold-and-blue starred banner of the EU, let out a cheer. An orchestra on stage played the bloc’s anthem, Ode to Joy.

“In recent years, you have taken decisive steps and now you have the responsibility to see it through, even with this war on your border,” Metsola said. “The Republic of Moldova is ready for integration into the single European market.”

However, the jubilant rally comes amid warnings that Moscow is doing everything it can to keep the former Soviet republic within its self-declared sphere of influence.

In February, the president of neighboring Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, warned that his country’s security forces had disrupted a plot to overthrow Moldova’s pro-Western government. Officials in Chișinău later said the Russian-backed effort could have involved sabotage, attacks on government buildings and hostage-taking. Moscow officially denies the claims.

“Despite previous efforts to stay neutral, Moldova is finding itself in the Kremlin’s crosshairs — whether they want to be or not, they’re party of this broader conflict in Ukraine,” said Arnold Dupuy, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.

“There’s an effort by the Kremlin to turn the country into a ‘southern Kaliningrad,’ putting in place a friendly regime that allows them to attack the Ukrainians’ flanks,” Dupuy said. “But this hasn’t been as effective as the Kremlin hoped and they’ve actually strengthened the government’s hand to look to the EU and NATO for protection.”

Responding to the alleged coup attempt, Brussels last month announced it would deploy a civilian mission to Moldova to combat growing threats from Russia. According to Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, the deployment under the terms of the Common Security and Defense Policy, will provide “support to Moldova [to] protect its security, territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

Bumps on the road to Brussels

Last week, Sandu again called on Brussels to begin accession talks “as soon as possible” in order to protect Moldova from what she said were growing threats from Russia. “Nothing compares to what is happening in Ukraine, but we see the risks and we do believe that we can save our democracy only as part of the EU,” she said. A group of influential MEPs from across all of the main parties in the European Parliament have tabled a motion calling for the European Commission to start the negotiations by the end of the year.

But, after decades as one of Russia’s closest allies, Moldova knows its path to EU membership isn’t without obstacles.

“The challenge is huge,” said Tom de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. “They will need to overcome this oligarchic culture that has operated for 30 years where everything is informal, institutions are very weak and large parts of the bureaucracy are made viable by vested interests.”

At the same time, a frozen conflict over the breakaway region of Transnistria, in the east of Moldova, could complicate matters still further. The stretch of land along the border with Ukraine, home to almost half a million people, has been governed since the fall of the Soviet Union by pro-Moscow separatists, and around 1,500 Russian troops are stationed there despite Chișinău demanding they leave. It’s also home to one of the Continent’s largest weapons stockpiles, with a reported 20,000 tons of Soviet-era ammunition.

“Moldova cannot become a member of the EU with Russian troops on its territory against the will of the Republic of Moldova itself, so we will need to solve this before membership,” Romanian MEP Siegfried Mureșan, chair of the European Parliament’s delegation to the country, told POLITICO.

“We do not know now what a solution could look like, but the fact that we do not have an answer to this very specific element should not prevent us from advancing Moldova’s European integration in all other areas where we can,” Mureșan said.

While she denied that Brussels had sent any official signals that Moldova’s accession would depend on Russian troops leaving the country, Sandu said that “we do believe that in the next months and years there may be a geopolitical opportunity to resolve this conflict.”

Ties that bind

Even outside of Transnistria, Moscow maintains significant influence in Moldova. While Romanian is the country’s official language, Russian is widely used in daily life while the Kremlin’s state media helps shape public opinion — and in recent months has turned up the dial on its attacks on Sandu’s government.

A study by Chișinău-based pollster CBS Research in February found that while almost 54 percent of Moldovans say they would vote in favor of EU membership, close to a quarter say they would prefer closer alignment with Russia. Meanwhile, citizens were split on who to blame for the war in Ukraine, with 25 percent naming Russian President Vladimir Putin and 18 percent saying the U.S.

“Putin is not a fool,” said one elderly man who declined to give his name, shouting at passersby on the streets of the capital. “I hate Ukrainians.”

Outside of the capital, the pro-Russian ȘOR Party has held counter-protests in several regional cities.

Almost entirely dependent on Moscow for its energy needs, Moldova has seen Russia send the cost of gas skyrocketing in what many see as an attempt at blackmail. Along with an influx of Ukrainian refugees, the World Bank reported that Moldova’s GDP “contracted by 5.9 percent and inflation reached an average of 28.7 percent in 2022.”

“We will buy energy sources from democratic countries, and we will not support Russian aggression in exchange for cheap gas,” Sandu told POLITICO.

The Moldovan president, a former World Bank economist who was elected in 2020 on a wave of anti-corruption sentiment, faces a potentially contentious election battle next year. With the process of EU membership set to take years, or even decades, it remains to be seen whether the country will stay the course in the face of pressure from the Kremlin.

For Aurelia, a 40-year-old Moldovan who tied blue and yellow ribbons into her hair for Sunday’s rally, the choice is obvious. “We’ve been a part of the Russian world my whole life. Now we want to live well, and we want to live free.”



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Not just Qatargate: Eva Kaili also faces probe into EU kickbacks scheme

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Qatargate aside, Eva Kaili is facing a world of pain for a different reason altogether. 

Documents seen by POLITICO reveal fresh details about a separate criminal investigation that the Greek EU lawmaker is facing regarding allegedly fraudulent payments involving four former assistants in the European Parliament from 2014 to 2020. 

The probe is looking at Kaili for three potential fraudulent activities: whether she misled Parliament about her assistants’ location and work activities; took a cut of their reimbursements for “fake” work trips she orchestrated; and also took kickbacks from part of their salaries, according to a letter from the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) to Parliament President Roberta Metsola, seen by POLITICO. 

Another Greek EU lawmaker, Maria Spyraki, has also been part of the same probe. Investigators accuse her of misleading the institution about her assistants’ activities and of telling them to file expenses for fake work trips. However, the documents do not allege that Spyraki took kickbacks from salaries or false reimbursements.

In total, investigators say Kaili owes the European Parliament “around €100,000,” according to a person familiar with the case.

The details offer the first real insight into the inquiry since it became public in December, only days after Kaili was put in jail under suspicion that she was involved in an even bigger scandal, Qatargate — the alleged bribery ring that prosecutors say involved countries such as Qatar and Morocco paying off European Parliament members.

And with all Qatargate suspects now out of detention, and no new arrests since February, attention is now shifting to the fraud case. MEPs in the Parliament’s legal affairs committee will discuss Kaili’s case behind closed doors for the first time on Tuesday. 

Kaili, who was moved to house arrest earlier this month, is currently fighting the prosecutor’s request to strip her immunity — a privilege afforded to EU lawmakers. But the EU prosecutor’s office, which investigates criminal fraud linked to EU funds, has argued its probe is on solid ground.

“The current investigation pertains to strong suspicions of repeated fraud and/or other serious irregularities,” European Chief Prosecutor Laura Kövesi said in the letter seen by POLITICO, which was sent to Parliament in December and requested both Kaili and Spyraki be stripped of their immunity. 

EPPO declined to comment on the case for this article. Kaili, through an attorney, said she has promised to pay back any money owed and to comply with any recommendations. Spyraki told POLITICO that her case has nothing to do with Kaili, and she confirmed she has never been accused of taking kickbacks.

“I have no dispute on the budget based on my responsibility as supervisor,” she said. “I have already paid the relevant amount and I have already asked the services to reassess my case financially.”

Kickbacks

The European prosecutor went public about the fraud inquiry on December 15, just days after Kaili had been arrested in Brussels in connection with Qatargate. 

The notice named both Kaili, who belonged to the center-left Socialists and Democrats grouping, and Spyraki, a former journalist and former spokesperson for the center-right Greek party New Democracy, which is affiliated with the large European People’s Party group in Brussels.

The announcement came the same day Kövesi sent her immunity-lifting request to Metsola. The documents also named four former staffers of Kaili and two former assistants to Spyraki as potentially participating in the different schemes. 

But officials publicly offered few specifics about the inquiry, only noting that it was unrelated to the Qatargate affair, which had also ensnared Kaili’s life partner Francesco Giorgi, as well as several other current and former EU lawmakers. 

Now the details are starting to emerge. 

According to the letter seen by POLITICO, the EPPO probe is examining both Kaili and Spyraki over irregularities regarding their assistants’ “physical presence at the place of employment” and “related European Parliament decisions on working time.”  

According to the same letter, another line of inquiry is “fake missions, submission of false supporting documents and undue reimbursement claims for missions expenses by the APAs on the request of Ms Kaili and Ms Spyraki.” APA is an acronym for accredited parliamentary assistant.

Eva Kaili poses for the “MEPs for #millennialvoices”campaign in 2016 | European Parliament

Kaili specifically is also under investigation for receiving “payback” from her assistants’ salaries and the falsified expenses.

The public prosecutor’s probe follows an investigation by the EU’s anti-fraud office, known as OLAF, which was completed on November 23 of last year. OLAF then transferred its case to EPPO, it said in a December statement.

OLAF said it would leave any follow-up to the public prosecutor’s office, declining to comment beyond its statement four months ago. 

Immunity fight

The EPPO case is also becoming entangled in the fight over whether to lift Kaili’s immunity.

Immunity is a special privilege MEPs enjoy that is intended to protect them from being arbitrarily prosecuted for what they say or do as EU lawmakers. It can be waived following a recommendation by the legal affairs committee and a vote by all MEPs.

Parliament is now starting that process for Kaili, having already kicked it off for Spyraki. MEPs will discuss Kaili’s immunity at the legal affairs committee gathering on Tuesday.

Investigators say Kaili owes the European Parliament “around €100,000” | European Parliament

Spyros Pappas, Kaili’s lawyer, argued that typically, such fraud cases are closed after OLAF finishes its probe — as it did with Kaili — with the lawmaker paying back whatever the office says is owed. He also questioned how officials could justify lifting immunity for actions that stretch back to 2014. 

“One cannot but question both the legality and the opportunity of the initiative taken by EPPO,” he said. “The answer can only be given by the General Court of Justice of the EU.”



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To go or not to go? Von der Leyen’s COVID committee dilemma

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There won’t be any severed horses’ heads but the European Commission president may soon receive an offer that she can’t refuse — at least without causing an institutional dust-up.

Last week, the coordinators of the European Parliament’s special committee on COVID-19 voted to invite Ursula von der Leyen to appear in front of the panel to answer their questions on vaccine procurement. 

It’s not a courtesy call. EU lawmakers want to shine a light on exactly what happened during those hectic months at the height of the pandemic in 2021, when the bloc was frantically searching for vaccine doses to protect its population from the coronavirus.

The committee’s chair, Belgian MEP Kathleen Van Brempt has said she wants full transparency on the “preliminary negotations” leading up to vaccine purchases — a reference to the Commission president’s unusual personal role in negotiating the EU’s biggest vaccine contract, signed with Pfizer and its partner BioNTech. An appearance would refocus attention on von der Leyen’s highly contentious undisclosed text messages with Pfizer’s chief executive.

It’s a topic von der Leyen has so far fiercely resisted opening up about but the COVI committee invite could put the Commission president in a sticky situation.

All bark, no bite? 

On the face of it, von der Leyen could just say no. European Parliament committees don’t have many formal powers. They have no rights to compel witnesses to appear or to get them to tell the truth — and there’s no recourse if someone refuses to appear or lies in front of the committee.

Indeed, Pfizer’s Chief Executive Albert Bourla — with whom von der Leyen is reported to have conducted personal negotiations via text message — thumbed his nose at the committee more than once, and sent one of his employees instead.

Even when the Parliament does reel in a big name, the performance can be lackluster — like in the case of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg who agreed to show up but then avoided answering most questions. That’s a far cry from how the U.S. Senate’s commerce and judiciary committees grilled the tech titan for hours. 

And the Commission president has already shown a penchant for being evasive when it comes the Pfizer negotiations, earning the Commission a verdict of maladministration from the European Ombudsman for its lack of transparency.

However, the fact that von der Leyen is an inter-institutional figure gives the Parliament more bite than with external guests — and may help tip the balance in the committee’s favour.

First, there’s precedent. While the Commission President usually appears in front of all MEPs at a plenary session such as in the annual State of the European Union speech, Commission presidents have appeared in front of committees in the past. Von der Leyen’s predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, for example, appeared in front of a special committee to answer uncomfortable questions over his role in making Luxembourg a tax haven. 

Secondly, the European Parliament is tasked with overseeing the EU’s budget. With billions of euros spent in the joint purchase of the vaccines, and part of those funds coming straight from the EU’s pockets, it’s hard to argue that there aren’t important financial considerations at play, and ones that the elected representatives of the EU should be allowed to scrutinize.

Then there’s Article 13 of the EU’s founding treaty, which calls for “mutual sincere cooperation” between the EU’s institutions. It’s a point that’s repeated in an inter-institutional agreement between the Parliament and the Commission, which states that the EU’s executive should also provide lawmakers with confidential information when it’s requested — like, for example, the contents of certain text messages.

The Commission has so far been tight-lipped. When asked last week about Ursula von der Leyen’s upcoming invite to the COVID-19 committee, a Commission spokesperson said “No such invitation has been received.”

Don’t shoot the messenger 

And, in fact, it’s now up to European Parliament president Roberta Metsola to decide whether the invite will ever reach von der Leyen’s hands. The request is on her desk and, per protocol, any invitation to appear must come from the president’s office.

Metsola, who belongs to the same political group as von der Leyen (the center-right European People’s Party), confirmed to POLITICO that she has received a letter from the COVI committee and “will look at it.” “I cannot pre-empt what my reply will be to that committee,” she said.

As long as proper form is followed, Metsola should “pass on the message,” said Emilio De Capitani, a former civil servant who for 14 years was secretary of the European Parliament’s civil liberties committee (LIBE).

“The question isn’t abusive,” said De Capitani.  

In theory, von der Leyen, who was elected to her role by the Parliament, relies on its mandate to stay there.

“There’s nothing strange about meeting with an organ of the Parliament,” the former Parliamentary official added. “Then it will be up to von der Leyen to ask whether the hearing is in public or, behind closed doors. She could also choose to address it in plenary.” 

For political operatives such as Metsola and von der Leyen, the optics of their actions are likely to play a major role in any decision. And this invite comes at the same time as the biggest scandal in the European Parliament’s history.

An assistant for one of the MEPs in the COVI committee said the drive for transparency produced by the unfolding “Qatargate” influence scandal gave extra force to the invite.

“It wouldn’t have had the same result without Qatargate,” said the assistant. “If she says no, it will only make the problem worse.” 

Not everyone agrees. Detractors say the Parliament has lost its moral standing. And that even if none of the MEPs in the COVID-19 committee are implicated, the institution is still weakened on the whole.

“I think this [Qatargate] will make it less likely for von der Leyen to cooperate with the Parliament,” said Camino Mortera-Martinez, head of the Brussels office at the think tank Centre for European Reform. She said the Commission president is riding high after weathering a pandemic, and now the war in Ukraine.

“The European Parliament in theory could force von der Leyen to appear by threatening to dismiss her — but how can they do that in the current climate?”

This article was updated Friday morning to include comment from Roberta Metsola.

Eddy Wax contributed reporting.



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