The European Ombudsman has criticised the European Commission for its handling of a request for public access to text messages exchanged between president Ursula von der Leyen and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla.
But, according to the ombudsman, inquiry commission staff never explicitly asked the president’s office to look for text messages, despite Fanta specifically requesting them.
Instead, the cabinet was asked to only look for “documents”, a term that does not include text messages by commission standards.
The EU watchdog has now asked the commission to do a more extensive search.
“The narrow way in which this public access request was treated meant that no attempt was made to identify if any text messages existed,” ombudsman Emily O’Reilly said in a statement.
“This falls short of reasonable expectations of transparency and administrative standards in the commission.”
Last year, 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, as EUobserver reported.
“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 wrote in a statement.
But a New York Times article in April last year had shown that von der Leyen and 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.
“Not all text messages need to be recorded, but relevant text messages should be recorded. It is not credible to claim otherwise,” O’Reilly said, adding that “text messages clearly do fall under the EU transparency law.”
She has said in an official recommendation that the commission should ask von der Leyen for texts concerning EU policies and decisions.
“If text messages concern EU policies and decisions, they should be treated as EU documents,” she said, adding that the “EU administration needs to adapt its practice of recording documents.”
“What Ursula von der Leyen is typing into her phone is, frankly, not a private matter. We need public scrutiny of EU text messages when they are used to make billion-euro vaccine deals,” Fanta tweeted on Friday.
“It is unacceptable that the commission is refusing to be transparent on contacts between von der Leyen and Bouria,” tweeted MEP Kathleen Van Brempt from the Socialists & Democrats group on Friday and called for a dedicated Covid-19 parliamentary committee to further investigate the matter.
In response, a spokesperson has said that the commission will respond to the recommendation before the deadline of 26 April 2022.