Top European Commission officials are hunting the ranks of EU civil servants for leakers and threatening unspecified “charges” after a series of recent disclosures infuriated President Ursula von der Leyen and members of her inner circle, according to three EU officials with direct knowledge of the investigations.
The Commission, as is also the case with many national governments, routinely seeks to prevent unauthorized disclosures to the press, and has often sought to identify employees who breach confidentiality and pre-empt official announcements. This occurred last month when details of von der Leyen’s coronavirus economic recovery plan were published by Bloomberg News and by POLITICO.
At a meeting this week, senior EU officials were warned that investigators had identified a suspect in the leak of details surrounding the recovery plan, which would be linked to the EU’s new long-term budget plan, or Multiannual Financial Framework. If the allegations are confirmed, the senior officials were told “charges will be pressed.”
But the investigations now underway by the Commission’s Secretariat-General stand apart in that they also include at least one case in which information was divulged not to a journalist but to the EU’s own member countries.
That case, involving the draft of a much-anticipated plan to overhaul EU migration and asylum policy, reflects deepening mistrust between the Commission and national capitals after weeks of tension over how to manage the coronavirus pandemic.
Commission officials, including von der Leyen, had accused national leaders of acting unilaterally and selfishly in hoarding protective gear and imposing border restrictions, while some capitals have chastized Brussels for mishandling aspects of the response, including by rushing too quickly to publish an exit strategy from containment measures, and by inflaming a debate over how to finance a giant economic recovery plan.
Some diplomats said the effort to investigate civil servants for sharing information with national governments, and branding those disclosures as “leaks,” reflected a continuing struggle by von der Leyen, a former German defense minister, and her closest confidantes, to adapt to the ways of Brussels. In the EU capital, secrets are nearly impossible to keep, and the requirement for member countries to unanimously approve most policy initiatives demands near-constant consultation and collaboration.
One official and one EU diplomat, interviewed separately, said the new investigations signaled growing “paranoia” within von der Leyen’s team, which includes several top advisers who arrived with her from Berlin.
“We are used to reading in German press leaks of what we just discussed,” one of the officials said, in an unsubtle reference to von der Leyen’s home country. “They are not vital leaks but they are still leaks.”
The Commission did not respond to a request for comment or a list of questions about the leak investigations, including what charges might be pursued.
A spokesman for von der Leyen also did not respond to questions about her personal view of the leaks and if she had ordered the inquiries, which are being led by Pascal Leardini, a deputy secretary general who is chief operating officer in the Commission’s Secretariat-General.
But several officials described members of von der Leyen’s cabinet and the president herself as being infuriated over the recent leaks. One Commission official said the president’s cabinet had “hit the roof” in two cases where official policy roll-outs were pre-empted by press reports — the announcement of the “Just Transition Fund” to accompany the European Green Deal, and the more recent disclosure about the coronavirus recovery fund.
At this week’s meeting, senior officials were told that von der Leyen was “up in arms” over the leaks and that officials found responsible would be punished no matter how high they rank.
One EU diplomat described the situation as “a toxic cocktail of hypocrisy and McCarthyism,” referring to the witch-hunt against alleged Communists led by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s.
Officials and diplomats who spoke to POLITICO about the leak investigations declined to be identified, citing the fear of political retribution or professional reprimand.
Several said that the hunt for leakers was particularly futile and misguided because the president’s office would find itself frequently in a position of needing to selectively disclose information about policy initiatives, thereby inviting charges of hypocrisy, but also because virtually none of the issues being discussed involve genuine security information that would put lives at risk if revealed.
In some cases, von der Leyen has appeared to miscalculate when she could make a unilateral announcement and when she would be better off waiting for national heads of state and government to sign off.
For instance, her announcement of an EU-wide unemployment reinsurance scheme effectively decreed how member states would spend their money before national leaders had formally given their endorsement.
And during the most recent videoconference of EU leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed to express concern that the press would hear about the Commission’s revised MFF proposal before leaders did. “Don’t forget to talk to us,” she told von der Leyen.
Jacopo Barigazzi, Lili Bayer, Laura Kayali and Bjarke Smith-Meyer contributed reporting.