130,000-strong petition backs European Ombudsman ruling for Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to adhere to EU transparency rules around vaccine negotiations.

Brussels, 29 June 2022 The European Commission today doubled-down on its refusal to release text messages exchanged with Pfizer CEO, Albert Bourla, relating to negotiations of the purchase of covid vaccines in spite of calls to do so from over 130,000 citizens and the European Ombudsman.

This Wednesday, rejecting the opinion by the European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, who said that the text messages are subject to EU transparency rules, the European Commission is arguing instead that text messages are “short-lived and ephemeral” so are not registered and so not held by the Commission.

This case arose following an access to documents request by journalist Alexander Fanta, member of Access Info’s International Advisory Board.

In what is being seen by transparency experts as a regressive move, the Commission proposes to urge staff not to use messaging apps in a professional context, removing the need to keep a record of them.

The concern is that this leaves room for important matters to be discussed and decisions taken via text message – something which regularly happens in all public bodies these days – without any transparency.

The vaccine contracts are a case in point: Researchers have revealed that the European Union could have overpaid by as much as 31 billion euros for its initial covid vaccine contract.

Ibrahim Bechrouri, Digital Campaigner at SumOfUs said: “Ursula von der Leyen must come clean about the negotiations with Pfizer. Anything less will fuel public mistrust of covid vaccines and of European institutions. The EU could have overpaid by billions and taxpayers deserve to be told the truth. Today, more than 130,000 people in Europe, including journalists, NGOs and elected representatives, are demanding answers from Ms von der Leyen: she cannot ignore this issue indefinitely!

In 2019 Ursula von der Leyen came under criticism for lack of transparency over the award of defense contracts when she was German defense minister. She was suspected of having shown favouritism in awarding contracts and when a German parliamentary committee investigating the contracts requested two mobile phones, it emerged that the one phone had been wiped clean of its contents.

We are seeing the Commission using this case to set a permanent precedent for not providing text messages. This raises real concerns about whether the EU’s 21-year-old access to documents rules are fit for the digital age. We need rules that deliver genuine transparency and accountability of the Commission, whose decisions directly affect the daily lives of European citizens,” added Helen Darbishire, Executive Director of Access Info Europe.

SumOfUs and Access Info Europe are calling on the European Commission to :

  • recognise that these text messages from the President of the European Commission are subject to transparency rules enforced within European institutions;
  • shed light on the EU’s covid vaccine purchase negotiations;
  • strengthen the EU’s transparency and record-keeping rules to ensure that they consistently apply to today’s communication practices.