Campaigners are calling for an investigation into why a report on the sensitive topic of pharmaceutical market rules was withdrawn days after it was published, and whether the romantic relationship between the chair of the commissioning panel and another MEP had anything to do with it.
Shari Hinds, a policy officer at Transparency International, said the outstanding questions over the circumstances of the removal of the report “warrant the opening up of a potential conflict of interest case by the Advisory Committee on the Conduct of Members.” The committee is a Parliamentary body charged with ensuring MEPs follow the Parliament’s Code of Conduct.
Hinds said that while it wasn’t clear yet whether there had been a conflict of interest, the relationship between the two MEPs — Pernille Weiss and Christian Ehler — and the potential impact of the report meant there were enough “question marks and concerns surrounding the taking down of the study” to open an investigation.
The report in question was produced at the request of the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) on the topic of access to medicines and pharmaceutical innovation. It’s sensitive because the European Parliament has just started debating a major reform of the EU’s pharmaceuticals system that centers on incentives for drug developers worth billions of euros.
The independent report, which recommended policies broadly unfavourable to the pharmaceutical industry, was published on October 27. It was then removed from STOA’s website on October 30, apparently at the behest of MEPs Weiss and Ehler, who are both from the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) group and in a romantic relationship. Both MEPs sit on the STOA panel and Ehler chairs it.
POLITICO saved a copy of the report here.
Olivier Hoedeman, campaign coordinator for lobby watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory, said the decision to remove the report “creates the impression of a conflict of interest: the chair of STOA acting on behalf of his partner, an MEP with close ties to Big Pharma.”
In addition to sitting on STOA, Weiss is leading the Parliament’s discussions on how to revise the EU’s pharma rules and takes a position close to the industry’s own, supporting, for example, longer periods of protection from competition for new drugs.
Disclosures show that she’s received input from numerous industry representatives when drafting her legislative proposal. However, records also show her center-left counterpart Tiemo Wölken, who is leading a parallel piece of legislation, meeting with the industry, though he takes a position more hostile to their interests.
The code of conduct for MEPs defines conflict of interest as a case where “the exercise of the mandate of a Member of the European Parliament in the public interest may be improperly influenced for reasons involving his or her family, emotional life, economic interest or any other direct or indirect private interest.”
While STOA’s Secretariat now maintains that the report was published in error before it was finalized, it originally said it had been held back due to concerns from members on the STOA panel. A pre-publishing announcement from STOA shows that October 27 was the original publishing date.
Transparency International’s Hinds said the incident was more evidence of the need for an independent EU ethics body, while Alberto Alemanno, founder of the nonprofit The Good Lobby, said it also casts into question the way that STOA functions.
“Who decides whether and when to publish EU studies affecting an ongoing legislative file?” asked Alemanno. “[S]houldn’t MEP’s discretion in soliciting and publishing studies be governed by predictable rules to avoid instances of maladministration at best or misuse of power at worst?”
Weiss and Ehler didn’t respond to a request for comment sent the afternoon of November 3. Ehler previously told POLITICO he didn’t believe any conflict of interest had taken place.