The European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, has been criticised for failing to hand over the text messages she exchanged with the head of Pfizer during the pandemic. The European Union (EU) watchdog was already looking into how officials use text and instant messaging platforms to conduct business – and now Ms Von der Leyen’s actions have put her at the centre of the row.
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 comes 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.
“However, documents and strategies are developed elsewhere in federal ministries and sent differently.”
In a letter to the Commission President, published on Friday, 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.”