President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen has been at the heart of a controversy for the past few days concerning her relations with the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, with whom she had to negotiate in respect to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Referred to by a German journalist, the European Ombudsman ruled that the public could have knowledge of these exchanges between the President of the European Commission and the director of the Pfizer laboratory. For the moment, Ursula von der Leyen stubbornly refuses to communicate the series of text messages exchanged between them.
The incident dates back to April 2021: the President of the Commission confided to the New York Times that she corresponded directly by SMS with the CEO of Pfizer Albert Bourla, while the European Union was negotiating the purchase of vaccines against COVID-19 with the American laboratory. At stake was the purchase of 1.8 billion doses. At the time, these initial revelations were deliberate on the part of Ursula von der Leyen: after a chaotic start to the management of the pandemic, it was a matter of proving the responsiveness and energy of the European institutions. This information is now turning against its initiator, especially since the doses turned out to be more expensive than expected: €19.50 per unit instead of €15.50.
Today, many questions remain about these negotiations, both on the prices of the vaccines and on the clauses of the contracts. The European Ombudsman was contacted by a journalist from the German website Netzpolitik after it was denied access to the content of these messages. Now, on Friday, January 28th–eight months later–the Ombudsman condemned Ursula von der Leyen’s refusal to disclose the incriminating text messages. Her attitude “does not meet the expectations of transparency and administrative standards within the Commission.” For Emily O’Reilly, the text messages “fall within the framework of European legislation on public access to documents” and “the public can have access to them if they concern the work of the institution.” She considers this to be a “case of maladministration.” For Green MEP Daniel Freund, former representative of the NGO Transparency International on the integrity of the EU institutions, these messages must be subject to the rules of freedom of information. Otherwise, they should be banned for official communication.
Ursula von der Leyen’s office has until April 26th to allow the competent authorities to examine the messages in question. Commission spokesman Eric Mamer promised to respond to the Ombudsman within the deadline, but the commission is under no obligation to follow her injunctions and has protested. The European Commission believes that the transparency rules of the European institutions do not apply to these messages. It believes that the disclosure of these text messages makes no sense, because it would lead to scrutiny of all the telephone conversations that its members have had as part of their work—an impossible undertaking. “Imagine if Macron had to make all his text messages available to the public!” exclaimed a person close to von der Leyen. But these rules date from 2001, a time when SMS or Whatsapp-like networks were not commonly used as communication channels.
Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly disagrees: only the content of a document matters, not its form. As long as SMS messages potentially concern EU policies and decisions, they should be treated as EU documents, and as such, made available to the public.
Another question is whether Ursula von der Leyen kept those famous text messages. In 2019, before leaving the German Ministry of Defense, she had deleted all her exchanges from her phone. The Bundestag’s committee of inquiry, which wanted to investigate the contracts awarded by her ministry—for a sum of €200 million—found no trace of them. The same scenario could happen again, this time on a European scale.
The case is starting to make noise. The Corporate Europe Observatory, an NGO that analyzes the relationship between European politicians and lobbies, believes that in 25 years, the European Commission has “never reached such a level of opacity as we are currently seeing with the pharmaceutical companies” in the words of Hans van Scharen, spokesman for the Lobbying Observatory. His organization requested more documents about the vaccine negotiations from 16 months ago, but has not yet received them. “This feeds the mistrust of the general public,” lamented Hans van Scharen.
The NGO, still waiting for these documents on the vaccine negotiations, has filed a second complaint with the European Ombudsman, who has opened a new investigation into the matter.