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3 questions to understand the controversy

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What SMS are these and in what context were they sent?

It all starts after the publication of an article from the New York Times last April. The American daily revealed in its columns the existence of text messages sent between Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and Albert Bourla, the CEO of the Pfizer firm.

Text messages exchanged for at least a month as part of negotiations on a contract to purchase 1.8 billion doses of Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine against Covid-19 according to the New York Times. Repeated exchanges, to which a journalist asked for access to the European Commission, which agreed to provide him with three documents: an e-mail, a letter and a press release, but no SMS.

The Commission said it has no record of these messages, saying the text messages are not intended to be stored and are not subject to the rules on transparency of the European institutions, dating from 2001.

Why was an investigation launched?

Faced with the Commission’s response, the European Union ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, criticized the European institution on Friday 28 January for having refused to provide information about these text messages and asked that the cabinet by Ursula von der Leyen proceeds to “further research” in order to find these messages and reveal their content in accordance with the transparency rules applicable to EU documents.

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In a response to the investigation initiated by the Ombudsman, the Commission considers that these messages are “by nature documents of a short lifespan, which do not in principle contain important information relating to the policies, activities and decisions of the Commission”.

For the mediator on the contrary, ” it’s clear “ than texting “come within the framework of European legislation on public access to documents” and “the public can have access to them if they relate to the work of the institution”. She called on the European administration to change its document retention practices to take account of the modern means of communication. No attempt was made to identify whether the text messages in question existed. This way of acting does not meet expectations in terms of transparency”criticized Emily O’Reilly.

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What next?

If these messages are identified, the Commission should “assess whether they meet the criteria, under EU law on access to documents, to be disclosed”she concludes in her recommendations, which are however not binding.

More than half of the 4.2 billion covid doses purchased or reserved by the EU are supplied by the American-German duo Pfizer-BioNTech.

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Key aspects of contracts with laboratories, including prices, are confidential, which has been criticized by MEPs and NGOs. “This case is more important than a simple exchange of SMS”denounced the Dutch MEP Sophie in’t Veld (Renew Europe), considering that “the European Commission has become less transparent (…)”.

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