EU transparency commissioner: No conflict of interest for Ursula von der Leyen’s husband
Green lawmakers had raised concerns about Heiko von der Leyen’s role in a biotech company that received EU funds.
The husband of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen did not break any conflict of interest rules by working in a company that was awarded European Union money, Transparency Commissioner Věra Jourová wrote in a letter to Green lawmakers, who passed a copy to POLITICO.
The EU official was responding to a letter sent by eight MEPs in the Greens/European Free Alliance group in December. The EU lawmakers drew attention to how U.S. biotechnology company Orogenesis, where Heiko von der Leyen is director, had benefitted from EU money on two separate occasions.
Last year, an Italian subsidiary of Orogenesis joined a gene and cell therapy project backed by EU funds. Heiko von der Leyen was then elected to sit on the supervisory board of the project. He resigned after Italian media drew attention to his role. The Commission president’s public declaration of interest hadn’t originally listed her spouse’s stint on the on the board, and was only updated after Italian media reports.
Separately, a consortium of companies led by one of Orgenesis’s other subsidiaries, MIDA Biotech, was awarded €4 million from the EU’s Horizon research program.
The MEPs didn’t directly accuse the biotech executive of wrongdoing but said that they were "worried" about Orgenesis’s involvement in EU projects and asked Jourová to look into it.
In her response, the transparency commissioner denied that either case represented a breach of EU rules. In the case of the Italian project, the Commissioner wrote that Heiko von der Leyen joined the supervisory board only after the company had been selected to take part.
"[B]oth Orgenesis Inċ. and Prof. Dr. von der Leyen declared that he had not been involved in the grant application process and the award. Therefore, a conflict of interest of the President can also be excluded for this reason," the letter reads.
In the case of the project involving MIDA Biotech, Jourová noted that the agency responsible for awarding the grant was European Innovation Council and SMEs Executive Agency (EISMEA). The Commission and the Commission president aren’t involved in "such individual award decisions" and therefore there is no conflict of interest, said the transparency commissioner. The EISMEA is, however, set up by the Commission and manages EU funds.
The letters come as there’s a renewed push for transparency in Brussels after the Qatar cash-for-influence scandal. Most recently, attention has focused on how the head of the Commission’s transport department signed off on his own free flights to Qatar.
"Trust in the institutions of the European Union and the observation of the highest standards of ethical conduct are a concern that the Commission fully shares," wrote Jourová.