Watchdog reprimands EU executive for failing to share Von der Leyen texts

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The Guardian

The EU’s official watchdog has issued a formal reprimand to the European Commission over its president Ursula von der Leyen’s failure to release text messages exchanged with the boss of Pfizer during the pandemic.

The EU ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, on Thursday upheld her verdict of maladministration by the commission, saying it had failed “to answer the basic question of whether the text messages in question exist” or be clear about how it would deal with similar requests in future.

“The recent revelations about lobbying tactics by an American multinational in Europe, including leaked text messages, shows the urgency of this issue for public administrations,” said O’Reilly, referring to the Uber files, revelations published by the Guardian and journalists in 29 countries into the Silicon Valley firm’s aggressive lobbying tactics in Brussels and elsewhere.

O’Reilly said the commission’s handling of the access to documents request left “the regrettable impression of an EU institution that is not forthcoming on matters of significant public interest”.

The dispute arose after a journalist requested access to text messages exchanged between Von der Leyen and Pfizer’s chief executive, Albert Bourla, following a New York Times report that detailed the personal diplomacy that helped the EU secure 1.8bn doses of life-saving vaccines. The commission declined to release the messages, prompting an appeal to the ombudsman.

After an initial finding of maladministration, the commission said last month it could not and did not need to find the messages in an official response to the ombudsman.

Making a final statement on Thursday to close the case, O’Reilly said the commission had given no good reason why the messages should not have been released. “Public access to work-related text messages is a new area for the EU administration and one that needs to be tackled substantively and in good faith. This inquiry is a wake-up call to all EU institutions,” she said.

While the ombudsman cannot issue any penalty, her report may increase pressure on the EU executive for greater disclosure of text and instant messages.

The ombudsman has said all work-related text and instant messages should be recognised as EU documents, thus subject to rules on public access.

The commission has always said it was not required to retrieve the text messages, saying “short-lived ephemeral documents are not kept”.

The EU’s 2001 regulation on public access to documents, however, defines a document as “any content whatever its medium [including electronic] … concerning a matter relating to the policies, activities and decisions falling within the institutions and its sphere of responsibility”.

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According to the New York Times report that triggered the controversy, Bourla and Von der Leyen exchanged texts and calls for a month, forging a personal relationship that helped unlock a deal for 1.8bn doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

The dispute recalls previous criticism of Von der Leyen for deleted messages relating to her time as Germany’s defence minister. In December 2019, after she had taken up her EU job, it emerged that data from her phone had been wiped, long after a German parliamentary inquiry requested it as evidence.

The German MPs were investigating whether personal connections were behind lucrative consultancy contracts handed out by the German defence ministry. Von der Leyen denied having anything to hide and was later cleared of responsibility over the mishandling of contracts.

July 14, 2022 at 02:21PM Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

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