EU watchdog: Failure to find VDL-Pfizer texts is ‘wake-up call”

The EU’s institutional watchdog again chastised the European Commission Thursday for refusing to provide or even seriously search for text messages that President Ursula von der Leyen allegedly exchanged with a pharma executive.

In reaffirming an earlier finding of maladministration, European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly delivered a last salvo in an ongoing dispute about whether text messages count as the type of document that should be preserved for the public record — or if WhatsApp is essentially a loophole in the EU’s transparency rules.

The Commission’s approach “leaves the regrettable impression of an EU institution that is not forthcoming on matters of significant public interest,” O’Reilly said in a statement closing the inquiry into a matter dubbed “Delete-gate” by critics.

It’s all the more urgent in light of revelations about Uber’s lobbying tactics earlier this week, O’Reilly said. She urged the Commission to come up with a more serious approach to preserving text messages, calling the matter a “wake-up call.”

The dispute stems from a New York Times article last year, which made reference to direct text exchanges between Von der Leyen and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla about coronavirus vaccines. After the Commission declined journalist Alexander Fanta’s request for access, O’Reilly issued an initial finding of maladministration and urged the Commission to make a more serious effort to find the texts earlier this year.

Last month, the Commission replied that such “short-lived, ephemeral documents are not kept.” At the same time, the Commission acknowledged that these texts could fall under the definition of documents that need to be kept.

O’Reilly published recommendations for text preservation, including technological solutions to make them easier to save.