Concerns are rising about the EU Commission’s ongoing opacity over its relations with Pfizer. But this is not the first time von der Leyen has been caught deleting sensitive information regarding deals with large corporations.
As readers may recall, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen found herself in hot water late last year after being accused of deleting mobile phone communications with Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer. In April 2021, the Commission’s negotiations with Pfizer were drawing to a close precisely at a time that a desperate von del Leyen was taking heavy flak for failing to make the Commission’s advance purchase agreements with AstraZeneca legally airtight. As the NYT reported, much of the negotiations to seal a deal to buy/sell 1.8 billion doses of Pfizer BioNTech’s vaccine were conducted via phone and text messages.
None of those communications have been made public. In fact, they appear to have been destroyed. At the same time, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have been kept in the dark about much of the content of the Commission’s contracts with vaccine makers, which has led several MEPs to file a suit with the European Court of Justice in April. The Commission has only published heavily redacted versions of its advance purchase agreement and contract with Pfizer, which lacked information about vaccine production, pricing, delivery, payment, clinical trials, liability and indemnification.
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In May 2021, the Belgian journalist Alexander Fanta made a freedom of information (FOI) request for von der Leyen’s text messages with Pfizer. The Commission’s initial response was to stonewall her, arguing that its “record-keeping policy would in principle exclude instant messaging.” Indeed, as Fanta notes in a recent Politico article, the Commission has never archived a single text message, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that text messages are playing an increasingly important role in EU politics.
European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly got involved later in the year. Her inquiry concluded that the European Commission’s refusal to properly consider the request constitutes “maladministration”:
“The narrow way in which this public access request was treated meant that no attempt was made to identify if any text messages existed. This falls short of reasonable expectations of transparency and administrative standards in the Commission…
Not all text messages need to be recorded, but text messages clearly do fall do fall under the EU transparency law and so relevant text messages should be recorded. It is not credible to claim otherwise.”
O’Reilly also asked the Commission to conduct a more extensive search for the text messages in question. That was last December. Last week, the Commission finally gave a formal response, seven months after O’Reilly’s request. The message was simple: the Commission cannot and does not need to find the text messages.
“Due to their short-lived and ephemeral nature,” text messages “in general do not contain important information relating to policies, activities and decisions of the Commission,” wrote European Vice Commissioner for Values and Transparency Vera Jourová.
Now, text messages may be ephemeral — especially if you delete them as quickly as possible — but the results of them are not. In this case, we are talking about the results of negotiations between the CEO of one of the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturers and the president of the EU’s executive branch, which is clearly a matter of intense public interest. After all, the eventual outcome of those negotiations was a deal worth tens of billions of euros, paid for with public funds — for a vaccine that the Commission has considered making mandatory for all EU citizens. Yet those citizens, as well as their elected representatives in the European Parliament, are being kept in the dark about the terms and conditions of that deal.
It is perhaps not surprising that the Commission and Pfizer want to keep everything under wraps. Pfizer’s vaccine contracts with countries in Latin America were so controversial that some governments, such as Brazil and Argentina, initially refused to sign along the dotted line. In its negotiations with both countries, Pfizer asked for sovereign assets to be put up as collateral for any future legal costs. Brazil’s then health minister said in January: “I guess I don’t need to repeat it, but I’ll be succinct: complete disclaimer for side-effects from today to infinity. That simple.” In the end, both countries relented…
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