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The European Commission guilty of “bad administration” on the texts of Pfizer | European Commission

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An investigation by an EU watchdog into text messages sent by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to Pfizer’s chief executive found the European Commission guilty of “maladministration”.

Von der Leyen’s aides are heavily criticized in the ruling by EU ombudsman Emily O’Reilly for their handling of requests to publish messages sent during negotiations over vaccine purchases.

The commission initially claimed that after extensive research it had not ‘identified’ such texts with Albert Bourla, whose company expects $36bn (£26bn) in revenue from vaccine sales this exercise.

But the EU ombudsman’s investigation revealed that the search carried out by Commission officials was in fact limited to an internal file of documents.

Von der Leyen’s texts had not been stored there, and the commission chairman’s personal office had not been asked if such messages existed.

The committee later claimed it did not believe text messages were covered by EU law regarding the requirement to store policy-related documents as they were “short-lived”.

O’Reilly said the commission’s behavior fell short of the levels of transparency required by EU law.

She said: ‘The narrow manner in which this request for public access was handled means that no attempt was made to identify whether any text messages existed. This does not meet reasonable expectations for transparency and administrative standards within the commission.

“Not all text messages need to be recorded, but text messages clearly fall under EU transparency legislation and therefore relevant text messages should be recorded. It is not credible to claim otherwise.

The commission has now been tasked with carrying out a thorough new search for the text messages, the existence of which was first reported in an interview with Von der Leyen about his “personal diplomacy” conducted in The New York Times in April 2021.

“When it comes to the public’s right of access to EU documents, it is the content of the document that counts and not the device or the form,” O’Reilly said. “If text messages relate to EU policies and decisions, they should be treated as EU documents. The EU administration needs to update its document registration practices to reflect this reality.

Von der Leyen, who was German defense minister before moving to Brussels, was engulfed in a similar scandal shortly after leaving Berlin for Brussels in 2019.

She was forced to deny having anything to hide after it emerged that one of her two mobile phones wanted by a German parliamentary committee had been erased.

The committee had investigated whether lucrative defense contracts had been awarded to unsupervised outside consultants and whether personal relationships were behind the deals.

Von der Leyen, who was later cleared of responsibility, admitted to the German parliament in 2018 that “negligence by overworked civil servants” had led to “mistakes” during her time at the ministry.

Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch MEP, said the committee had become less transparent about its decisions under Von der Leyen’s leadership and called on the European Parliament to hold it to account.

She said: “It’s more important than just text messaging between Von der Leyen and Pfizer.

“In a democracy, transparency is the cornerstone of any relationship between an executive and the legislature which controls the power of the executive.

“The European Commission has become less transparent, less accountable to the European Parliament and frankly more disconnected from European democracy.”

Pfizer, which shares profits with its German partner BioNTech, has signed multiple contracts with the European Commission for its vaccine. The most recent has earmarked an additional 1.8 billion doses, at a higher price than previously set, to be delivered between the end of 2021 and 2023 among the 27 EU member states.

The commission has been criticized for high negotiated prices for Covid mRNA vaccines, with analysis suggesting the EU had paid €31bn (£25bn) above the cost of production.

A spokesman for the European Commission said on Friday they had no comment until their formal response to the findings was given to the mediator.

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