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Commission says it can’t find von der Leyen-Pfizer texts — and doesn’t need to

If it’s short and sweet, it’s OK to delete.

That’s the takeaway from the European Commission when it comes to saving its officials’ text messages as it holds firm in its refusal to share purported texts between President Ursula von der Leyen and a pharma executive. In a response submitted to the European Ombudsman, and published Wednesday, Commission Vice President Věra Jourová held the Berlaymont’s line in an ongoing standoff with the EU watchdog, MEPs and journalists.

At issue are messages von der Leyen reportedly exchanged with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla as part of a personal diplomatic mission to secure coronavirus vaccine doses for the Continent, described broadly in an April 2021 New York Times article. After Alexander Fanta, a journalist for netzpolitik.org, requested access to the texts but was refused, an inquiry by European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly published in January found the Commission had not asked von der Leyen’s office for the messages.

“If text messages concern EU policies and decisions, they should be treated as EU documents,” O’Reilly wrote, issuing a determination of “maladministration” by the Commission over what critics have dubbed “Delete-gate.”

On Wednesday, Jourová insisted there was no real dispute — and gave no ground.

“The Commission and the Ombudsman agree that what matters is the content of a document,” she wrote in the Commission’s formal response to the maladministration opinion, which was submitted to the Ombudsman before being published online by the watchdog on Wednesday.

Jourová later added, reiterating a Commission argument in response to a broader initiative by O’Reilly on texts, that “Due to their short-lived and ephemeral nature,” text messages “in general do not contain important information relating to policies, activities and decisions of the Commission.”

As a result, such “short-lived, ephemeral documents are not kept,” and so the Commission doesn’t have them, Jourová said. “The Commission can confirm that the search undertaken by the President’s cabinet for relevant text messages corresponding to the request for access to documents has not yielded any result.”

A spokeswoman for O’Reilly called the Commission’s reply “problematic on several points,” ahead of a full analysis due later.

The Commission plans to give staff guidance on when texts are appropriate to use, Jourová said. She pointed to January 2021 wording from the secretariat-general of the Council that asks staff to use texts “only for short-lived, ephemeral chat about public or non-sensitive content” as a “starting point” for a shared approach across the institutions.

For Fanta, the journalist who filed the original request, those types of instructions would essentially provide a fig leaf for a “policy of never even considering requests for text messages,” he said.

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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