The European Commission has said it cannot and does not need to find text messages that its president, Ursula von der Leyen, exchanged with the boss of Pfizer at the height of the pandemic, fuelling its dispute with the EU’s internal watchdog.

The commission’s defence of its right not to keep records of Von der Leyen’s text messages was published on Wednesday by the EU’s official watchdog, the European Ombudsman, which conducted an initial investigation after a complaint about transparency.

In a sharp rebuke issued in January, the ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, accused the EU executive of maladministration. She said text messages concerning EU policies and decisions should be treated as documents subject to EU transparency rules.

The saga, known to critics as Deletegate, arose after the New York Times reported in April 2021 that Von der Leyen had exchanged text messages with the Pfizer chief executive, Albert Bourla, forging a relationship that unlocked lucrative deals for life-saving coronavirus vaccines.

The commission later refused a freedom of information request from a journalist to provide the text messages, prompting an appeal to the ombudsman.

The ombudsman’s initial report revealed that the commission had made no attempt to find the text messages. Criticising the “narrow way” the information request was treated, O’Reilly instructed officials to look for the texts.

In a defiant response, the commission said it could not find the messages because such “short-lived, ephemeral documents are not kept” and were “not in the possession of the institution”.

“The commission can confirm that the search undertaken by the president’s cabinet [top officials] for relevant text messages corresponding to the request for access to documents has not yielded any results,” says the response from the commission’s vice-president for values, Vĕra Jourová.

The commission repeated that it saw no need to keep text messages, claiming they contained no vital information. “Due to their short-lived and ephemeral nature, text and instant messages in general do not contain important information relating to policies, activities and decisions of the commission,” it said.

The ombudsman described the commission’s response as “problematic on several points” but withheld further comment pending a formal conclusion in a few weeks.

Kathleen Van Brempt, a Belgian Social Democrat MEP who chairs the European parliament’s special committee on Covid-19, described the commission’s response as unacceptable. “The complete lack of transparency benefits the industry, not European citizens,” she said.

The European Ombudsman, tasked with investigating complaints about the EU institutions, has previously taken the commission to task for a laggardly approach to so-called “revolving doors” between its office and private companies.

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In 2018 O’Reilly rebuked the EU executive for failing to take action after a previous president took up a job at Goldman Sachs. She said José Manuel Barroso’s new job had raised “serious public disquiet” and the commission should have investigated whether he was in breach of a legal duty to act with “integrity and discretion” on leaving office.

More recently she said the commission risked “undermining the integrity” of EU administration without tougher restrictions on senior staff moving to the private sector.

Source: The Guardian