Ursula von der Leyen says vaccination is answer to Omicron
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The EU Commission President revealed last year that she had been texting with the Pfizer chief during the contractual negotiations over the delivery of vaccine vials. But when journalists requested access to those texts, Mrs von der Leyen refused, prompting a probe by the Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly.
According to the EU’s own regulations over public access to institutional documents, a document is defined as “any content whatever its medium … concerning a matter relating to the policies, activities and decisions falling within the institution’s sphere of responsibility”.
But according to the Commission, text messages are by their “nature a short-lived document which does not contain in principle important information concerning matters relating to the policies, activities and decisions of the Commission”, and therefore “the Commission record-keeping policy would in principle exclude instant messaging”.
Europe was famously behind with its vaccination efforts – prompting a vaccine row to erupt between the block and UK-Swedish drug-maker AstraZeneca.
Ms O’Reilly launched an inquiry into the European Commission’s refusal to hand over the contents of communications between Ms Von der Leyen and the Pfizer CEO in September.
The New York Times reported the EC President exchanged calls and texts with the Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla in April.
The publication claimed these messages made clear Pfizer may have more doses it could offer the bloc and the EU would be thrilled to have them.
Ms Von der Leyen and Mr Bourla were first connected in January when the latter explained why his company had been forced to cut vaccine supplies while it upgraded manufacturing facilities in Belgium.
In November 2020, the EU signed a deal for 200 million doses, with the option to add 100 million more.
However, in the wake of communications between Ms Von der Leyen and Mr Bourla, the bloc secured a new contract which would include a 900 million dose order through 2023, with the option to add another 900 million.
The controversy came at a time when there is a growing debate among some EU Member States about the extent to which there is sufficient accountability over text messages sent by senior officials when undertaking official business.
Ms Von der Leyen has in fact been criticised for this issue in the past.
In 2019, she faced backlash after it was revealed a mobile phone considered to be key evidence in a contracting scandal at the German Defence Ministry, which she had used, had been wiped clean.
When discussing the matter in late 2019, Ms Von der Leyen said: “In my opinion, nothing is lost, because text messages are suitable for fast communication.
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“However, documents and strategies are developed elsewhere in federal ministries and sent differently.”
In a letter to the Commission President, Ms O’Reilly said it was “necessary” for her inquiry team to meet with officials.
She wanted an explanation of the Commission’s “policy on keeping records of text messages and how this policy is implemented in practice”.
The Ombudsman said her team was seeking to get an explanation on “whether, and if so how and where, it searched for possible text messages falling under the complainant’s request”.
Ms O’Reilly previously launched a broader initiative into text messaging in June.
She said the aim of the inquiry was to look into how EU institutions and agencies record text and instant messages, with the principal aim of identifying best practices.
At the time, she wrote: “The EU administration, like any other public administration, is increasingly using means of modern electronic communication in its daily work.”
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