17th Aug 2022

MEPs boycott awards over controversial sponsorship

  • Greece has accused Novartis of bribing healthcare providers and former government officials to drive up its sales (Photo: nchenga)
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Two MEPs have withdrawn their nominations from the MEPs Awards over the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis's participation as a sponsor, currently the subject of an alleged bribery scandal in Greece.

The MEPs Awards event, which took place on Wednesday (29 June), is organised by the Parliament Magazine to recognise the work of EU lawmakers in several categories such as agriculture, technology and health.

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Danish left-wing MEP Nikolaj Villumsen, who was nominated as one of the best EU lawmakers for the health category, withdrew his nomination earlier this week over the sudden inclusion of a "controversial sponsor".

Villumsen claimed that the pharmaceutical company Novartis was not a sponsor under the health category when he was first nominated.

In an open letter, he criticised the organisers for not communicating to the nominees the inclusion of that sponsor.

"You most certainly should not impose sponsors after publishing nominations, and without a doubt ought not to accept nominations from companies involved in such scandals," reads Villumsen's open letter.

Echoing the same message, liberal MEP Véronique Trillet-Lenoir also decided to withdraw her nomination.

"Like my colleague, I decided to withdraw my nomination for the MEPs awards 2022 due to the addition of a private sponsor," she tweeted. "This goes against the rule I set for myself when I joined the European Parliament."

Greece has accused Novartis of bribing healthcare providers and former government officials to drive up its sales in the country, and it is now seeking €214m in compensation.

Beyond Villumsen and Trillet-Lenoir, Maltese socialist MEP Alex Agius Saliba and Cypress centre-right MEP Loukas Fourlas were also nominated under the health category.

Saliba told EUobserver that he was not aware of his colleagues' boycott decision or current allegations against Novartis.

Fourlas, for his part, won the award. But he was unavailable to comment so far.

Others such as Swedish left-wing MEP Malin Bjork have said that they did not want to win the award due to the sponsors, a source told EUobserver.

The list also includes Chinese technology giant Huawei (under the digital category), German engineering firm Bosch (energy category), and US multinational Coca-Cola (innovation category).

'Sufficient transparency' needed

The lack of transparency regarding the last-minute inclusion of Novartis as a new sponsor has also triggered criticism among the judges.

Alice Stollmeyer, executive director of NGO Defend Democracy, finally decided not to attend this week's event as one of the judges — given the raging controversy. She said invitations, which were sent first in October, did not include the list of sponsors.

"Good MEPs and their contribution to democracy deserve to be celebrated, but only when there is integrity of the sponsors and sufficient transparency during the process towards the MEPs, the judges and the audience," she told EUobserver.

Novartis was confirmed as a sponsor one month before the event via a Parliament Magazine supplement, distributed on 23 May and an event taking place on 26 May, the Dods Group which publishes the Parliament Magazine told EUobserver.

"Category sponsors have no involvement in the nominating or judging process, and no special access to MEPs is given to sponsors over any other attendee," they said, adding that they are reviewing communications with MEPs in light of the recent event.

The Dods Group is a British publisher linked to businessman and former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party Michael Ashcroft.

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