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19th May 2022

Von der Leyen's pharma texts should be public, MEP says

  • It is still unclear whether the messages between European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and the Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla have been deleted (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)
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Text messages between European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and the CEO of giant pharmaceutical company Pfizer should be made available to the public, MEPs and NGOs said on Tuesday (18 January).

The demand came after the EU commissioner for transparency and values, Věra Jourová, said that text messages do not fall under the scope of EU transparency rules on access to documents.

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"Due to their short-lived and ephemeral nature, text and instant messages are not meant to contain important information relating to policies, activities and decisions of the commission," Jourová said in a written answer to liberal Dutch MEP Sophia in 't Veld.

"They therefore neither qualify as a document subject to the commission record-keeping policy nor are they falling within the scope of regulation on access to documents," she added.

The EU's access to documents law has increasingly become a hot topic in Brussels, mainly because the 2001 rulebook is considered outdated yet previous attempts to update it have gone nowhere.

In November, the German magazine Der Spiegel reported that the EU Commission does not archive WhatsApp messages. It added that thousands of texts messages are deleted each month.

But the New York Times had earlier revealed that von der Leyen and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla had been exchanging texts and calls for months to seal a deal for 1.8 billion doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.

The lack of transparency surrounding these communications has triggered anger and outrage among MEPs and civil society organisations who criticised the EU executive for using tricks to avoid accountability.

"The European Commission has concluded multibillion-euro contracts with Pfizer…We have the right to know what the commission president discussed with the Pfizer CEO," said MEP Kathleen Van Brempt from the Socialists & Democrats group.

She argued that the text messages between von der Leyen and Bourla "belong to the public domain".

Liberal MEP Martin Hojsik used Twitter to ask what would be the word count limit that determines whether a message falls under the scope of transparency rules.

For her part, Alice Stollmeyer, executive director of NGO Defend Democracy, pointed out that the EU executive should lead by example when it comes to bringing transparency to policy-making.

"Transparency is a key condition for accountability, which is critical for a healthy democracy," she tweeted.

In September, the EU ombudsman Emily O'Reilly opened an inquiry over the refusal to grant journalists access to text messages between the EU commission and the CEO of Pfizer, and is currently assessing the next steps.

The EU watchdog previously called on EU institutions to update access to documents rules to include modern forms of communication like instant messaging.

But - so far - the EU Commission has refused to publicly clarify whether the messages have been deleted.

Von der Leyen faced similar scrutiny in late 2019 when text messages were deleted from the official mobile phones she was using during her previous role as Germany's defence minister.

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