EU Commission President Once Again in Hot Water (Or At Least Should Be) Over Her Opaque Dealings With Pfizer

Concerns are rising about the EU Commission’s ongoing opacity over its relations with Pfizer. But this is not the first time von der Leyen has been caught deleting sensitive information regarding deals with large corporations.

As readers may recall, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen found herself in hot water late last year after being accused of deleting mobile phone communications with Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer. In April 2021, the Commission’s negotiations with Pfizer were drawing to a close precisely at a time that a desperate von del Leyen was taking heavy flak for failing to make the Commission’s advance purchase agreements with AstraZeneca legally airtight. As the NYT reported, much of the negotiations to seal a deal to buy/sell 1.8 billion doses of Pfizer BioNTech’s vaccine were conducted via phone and text messages.

None of those communications have been made public. In fact, they appear to have been  destroyed. At the same time, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have been kept in the dark about much of the content of the Commission’s contracts with vaccine makers, which has led several MEPs to file a suit with the European Court of Justice in April. The Commission has only published heavily redacted versions of its advance purchase agreement and contract with Pfizer, which lacked information about vaccine production, pricing, delivery, payment, clinical trials, liability and indemnification.

Delete After Reading

In May 2021, the Belgian journalist Alexander Fanta made a freedom of information (FOI) request for von der Leyen’s text messages with Pfizer. The Commission’s initial response was to stonewall her, arguing that its “record-keeping policy would in principle exclude instant messaging.” Indeed, as Fanta notes in a recent Politico article, the Commission has never archived a single text message, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that text messages are playing an increasingly important role in EU politics.

European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly got involved later in the year. Her inquiry concluded that the European Commission’s refusal to properly consider the request constitutes “maladministration”:

“The narrow way in which this public access request was treated meant that no attempt was made to identify if any text messages existed. This falls short of reasonable expectations of transparency and administrative standards in the Commission…

Not all text messages need to be recorded, but text messages clearly do fall do fall under the EU transparency law and so relevant text messages should be recorded. It is not credible to claim otherwise.”

O’Reilly also asked the Commission to conduct a more extensive search for the text messages in question. That was last December. Last week, the Commission finally gave a formal response, seven months after O’Reilly’s request. The message was simple: the Commission cannot and does not need to find the text messages.

“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,” wrote European Vice Commissioner for Values and Transparency Vera Jourová.

Now, text messages may be ephemeral — especially if you delete them as quickly as possible — but the results of them are not. In this case, we are talking about the results of negotiations between the CEO of one of the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturers and the president of the EU’s executive branch, which is clearly a matter of intense public interest.  After all, the eventual outcome of those negotiations was a deal worth tens of billions of euros, paid for with public funds — for a vaccine that the Commission has considered making mandatory for all EU citizens. Yet those citizens, as well as their elected representatives in the European Parliament, are being kept in the dark about the terms and conditions of that deal.

It is perhaps not surprising that the Commission and Pfizer want to keep everything under wraps. Pfizer’s vaccine contracts with countries in Latin America were so controversial that some governments, such as Brazil and Argentina, initially refused to sign along the dotted line. In its negotiations with both countries, Pfizer asked for sovereign assets to be put up as collateral for any future legal costs. Brazil’s then health minister said in January: “I guess I don’t need to repeat it, but I’ll be succinct: complete disclaimer for side-effects from today to infinity. That simple.” In the end both countries relented.

Fighting Transparency At Every Turn

One seeming result of the negotiations between Bourla and von der Leyen is that the European Commission ended up paying a lot more for the Pfizer vaccine. According to portions of the contracts seen by the Financial Times, Pfizer’s shot increased in price to €19.50 from the €15.50 the EU had paid for the initial vaccines delivered in late December 2020. That price markup will have added an extra €7 billion or so to Pfizer’s revenues.

The Commission’s position on von der Leyen’s text messages flies in the face of the EU’s own transparency rules, as Fanta points out:

Von der Leyen herself stated in her Political Guidelines that if “Europeans are to have faith in our Union, its institutions should be open and beyond reproach on ethics, transparency and integrity.” The Commission has also told the European Parliament it is committed to “maximum transparency regarding the COVID-19 vaccines.”

And yet, it continues to fight transparency at every turn. In April, Commission lawyers won against a German tabloid journalist who sought access to meeting minutes, legal advice and other documents related to COVID-19 vaccines. The court found that the Commission’s desire for secrecy overrode the public interest in the matter. And in a response to the Ombudsman published yesterday, the Commission continued to hold its line.

Transparency campaigners and members of the European Parliament are aghast at the implications of all this. By exempting a whole category of content from FOI legislation, the European institutions are creating a massive loophole. And a no-disclosure form of communication will be duly exploited by the likes of fossil fuel lobbyists, arms traders and governments in Europe and beyond, all who want to keep their dealings with the EU a secret.

Not the First Time

As I noted in my previous article, “Why An Open, Transparent, Informed Debate About Mandatory Vaccination Is All But Impossible in the EU“, published in early December, this is not the first time von der Leyen has been caught deleting sensitive information:

In December 2019, less than a month into her new job at the helm of the EU’s executive branch, it was revealed that a mobile phone she had used as German defence minister had been wiped clean of all data, as Politico reported at the time:

Members of a German parliamentary committee investigating [a contracting] scandal cried foul over the deletion. They had wanted to examine the phone as part of their probe into how lucrative contracts from the defense ministry were awarded to outside consultants without proper oversight, and whether a network of informal personal connections facilitated those deals.

An official from the ministry told the committee on Thursday that the phone, which lawmakers had demanded since February be examined as evidence, had been wiped in August — the same month that von der Leyen left the ministry after she had been elected as European Commission president (German newspaper Welt first reported about the wiped phone).

Interestingly, one of the companies at the center of the contracting scandal was the US consulting firm Mckinsey & Company, which is currently mired in controversy over the role it played in facilitating the US’ opioid epidemic (see Yves’ recent article, “New York Times Shows How McKinsey “Guided” Major Opioid Players, Causing Even More Deaths“). Under vdL’s tenure Germany´s Defense Ministry awarded highly lucrative contracts to outside consultants, including Mckinsey, without proper oversight. All of this happened after vdL appointed Katrin Suder, a former Mckinsey consultant, as her permanent state secretary in the Ministry. Coincidentally, vdL’s son, David, began working at Mckinsey’s Palo Alto Office in 2016, three years after vdL became Germany’s Minister of Defense.

Mckinsey was also at the center of a recent contracting scandal involving Emmanuel Macron’s government. Under Macron, spending on consultancy firms by the French government and civil service has soared to nearly €1 billion. Among other things, Mckinsey has been involved in developing the government’s COVID-19 testing programmes, vaccination and the health pass, just as it has with other governments around the world. According to a French health ministry official cited by Politico in Jan 2021, consultants from the firm have been seated at the strategy table since the government’s vaccination plan was unveiled in early December, and maybe even before then.

The Dangers of Ongoing Opacity

Given the fact that Pfizer BioNtech’s vaccines are all but guaranteed to continue playing a front-line role in the EU’s COVID-19 response, the ongoing opacity over the Commission’s dealings with Pfizer is a serious cause for concern. The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in the EU began over a year and a half ago yet most EU lawmakers are still being kept in the dark about many aspects of the deal the Commission struck with Pfizer over 15 months ago.

Today, Pfizer and BioNTech are not only working on an Omicron-adapted COVID-19 vaccine, which will probably be authorized post haste by the European Medicines Agency (EMA); they are also trying to develop a (presumably non-sterilizing) vaccine for all coronaviruses. At the same time, the governments of EU Member States are beginning to complain about the vast stockpiles of unused Pfizer-BioNTech accumulating in their respective countries.

In mid-June Reuters cited the example of Poland, a country of around 38 million people, which has 30 million COVID-19 vaccines in stock and yet will still need to buy another 70 million under existing agreements:

In a letter sent to the Commission earlier in June, and seen by Reuters, the Polish Health Minister Adam Niedzielski together with his counterparts from Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania urged a “reduction of the amounts” of vaccines being ordered.

They said the contracts were agreed when it was impossible to predict how the pandemic would develop, and they should now be changed as the situation is improving.

An EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in May that EU countries would likely lose any legal case brought against suppliers because contracts could not be changed unilaterally.

There is currently no legal case, officials said.

In other parts of the world, judges are taking matters into their own hands. For example, in Uruguay a judge by the name of Alejandro Recarey has demanded that the Government  present detailed documentation on the terms and conditions of its contract Pfizer BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccines.  The judge, who is presiding over a case brought by parents opposing the vaccination of children over the age of five, has also asked the government to disclose the biochemical composition of the vaccines.

Meanwhile, back in Brussels the EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has described the Commission’s defense of von der Leyen’s destruction of evidence as “problematic on several points.” The closing decision, she said, will be published within the coming weeks.




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  1. BillS

    Princess VDL’s dealings during the time she was Defense Minister in Germany should have been an indication of how she would act as president of the European Commission. These people have the nerve to call the “Mediterraneans” (i.e. Greeks, Italians, etc.) corrupt. VDL (and her enablers at the Commission) have taken it to a whole new level!

    I would really like to see the EU succeed, but at this rate, it seems the rot will prevail and in the end, it will all collapse under its own fetid weight.

    1. Michaelmas

      I would really like to see the EU succeed


      [1] From its beginning in the 1950s-60s as the European Coal and Steel Community and then the EC, high-level members of von Hayek’s Mont Pelerin Society were primary architects of the organization that became the EU.

      Wilhelm Röpke was personal advisor to Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s Chancellor, and his Minister of Economics in the late 1950s when the EC was coming together and then left to become president of the Mont Pelerin Society in 1961-62. Ludwig Erhard, the second W. German Chancellor from 1963-66, was a member of the Mont Pelerin Society from 1950.There were many others.

      (Not incidentally, Röpke was also known for his pro-apartheid views on South Africa, publishing in 1964 South Africa: An Attempt at a Positive Appraisal which argued that apartheid was justified because the‘South African Negro’ was of ‘an utterly different race.’)

      [2] Robert Mundell, the father of ‘Reaganomics’, was also chief designer of the Euro, introduced in 1999. He was on record boasting about how the Euro would work to ‘discipline’ — immiserate — the European working classes.

      [3] Re. the EC/EU as a vehicle for imposing ordoliberal/neoliberal ideological conformity: In von Hayek’s “The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism,” he explicitly calls for the free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a “single market,” in von Hayek’s own words – among a federation of nations as a means to (a.) severely restrict the economic policy space available to democratic governments against the market, and (b.) subordinate employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

      And that’s what you see in the modern day EU. Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid, for instance, only if it’s “compatible with the internal market” and doesn’t “distort competition.” Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the European Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. Likewise, with limited exceptions (such as the ECB on euro matters), the Commission has the monopoly of proposal of new laws. Other institutions (including EUCO) may request the Commission to take action but the Commission cannot be forced to take it. And if it does not make a proposal, there cannot be a new law.

      There is no institution on the planet that is more neoliberal than the EU.

      1. Fernando

        Great comment Michaelmas!

        The EU is an anti-democratic and anti-worker organization on porpose!
        It’s unbelievable that people still have doubts about the insidious nature of the EU after this same organization deliberately inflicted a depression on southern Europe.

      2. BillS

        Thank you for your comment Michaelmas. I generally agree with what you say and I indeed have lost faith in the EU these last few years for the very reasons you state. However, my statement still stands. One can still lament the passing of what could have been a good idea (which was to have a talking shop in Europe with the purpose of avoiding possible war). That idea ended up being based on economics, which turned into the neoliberal dystopia that we see today.

      3. digi_owl

        And yet the social-demoratic left in Europe has the galls to claim that EU is a peace project. Oh how the 68-ers fell…

        1. Paul Jurczak

          Well, it’s both: neoliberal economic order with internal European peace. Good for business war is supposed to be conducted outside of EU: in Africa and Middle East.

          1. digi_owl

            So that is why they are so mind numbingly enraged over Ukraine.

            Putin broke the sacred compact…

    2. Uwe Ohse

      VDL’s dealings during the time she was Defense Minister in Germany should have been an indication of how she would act as president of the European Commission.

      They have been. Nobody cared.

      VDLs political careers is filled with decisions where one cannot be sure if she is just unbelievable incompetent or equally unbelievable corrupt. But since stupid people usually fail much earlier in their careers one should assume that she is corrupt.

      Deleting communication data is not new for her, anyway. See the consultant affair, where she subsided the big consultant companies (including the one where her undersecretary of state Suder had worked before (yes, mckinsey)). Her political survival was helped by deletion of communication data and files.

      VDLs political careers is also filled with a disregard for facts (like the exaggerated number of cases, but not limited to that) and abuse of the media for propaganda purposes (hidden advertising)

      That person is, in my opinion, a manipulative lier and unfit for any office. How she got into her current office is hard to explain by the known facts.

      1. Monosynapsis

        thx for the links, the one about the advertising campaign has been gutwrenching: these last years truly manifest a new phase in which the establishment has abandonned all pretense of keeping up democratic appearances. The mask is off.

    3. Tom Stone

      You can say “Thank You!” in so many ways with an extra 7 Billion in profits.

  2. YuShan

    She ought to get fired for this, but of course that will never happen.

    This illustrates once again what an undemocratic institution the EU is. The public hasn’t voted VDL into this position. She was appointed in some shady backroom deal, and the general public can not hold her to account. But of course oligarchs and corporations have direct access, and as you can see even these communications can be held secret and therefore never scrutinized.

    In the mean time, the euro has collapsed 20% from a year ago. The ECB is still imposing NEGATIVE interest rates, while their ONLY mandate is low inflation. They are deliberately not doing their job, but can also not be held to account.

    And yet, people are still not taking to the street to overthrow this bunch of crooks that are even imposing sanctions on their own population. I have given up all hope. Europe will die a painful death.

    1. Monosynapsis

      As many if not most here I’m desperate at the sight of the general complacency and ignorance of the general public – not only regarding the EU but towards our whole suicidal pseudo-civilization.

      One of the crucial elements is the simple fact that most pple simply don’t have the time/energy left to inform themselves. A brief superficial skim of NC takes me an hour, whith no limits to really digging in (during working days I have to time limit myself!).

      Many friends of mine- most of them intellectually quite capable – openly admit that they are simply overwhelmed by the sheer learning curve they face once I direct them to NC (or Albrecht Muellers Nachdenkseiten, which are more accessible). Although these sites are admirable endeavours of managing the information overload they still require a lot of time and background knowledge to be of use.

      Hence most skim the MSM (mostly paywalled, so one or two papers are perused all the time exclusively) or just flop on the couch with a beer for the evening news on TV after a stressful day. So almost everyone around me believes that Putin is Stalin, electical cars will “save the climate” and that VDL is a role model for all feminists.

      So, like probably most here, I feel more and more alienated by my fellow humans, separated by an ever widening gap of knowledge and understanding. Where to begin if most even havent heard about Mount Pelerin? So in most conversations I just politely nod with an internal sigh.

      Foucault truly was onto something whith his epistemes!

  3. Ignacio

    This is good stuff. Needless to say EU regulations and directives put strict rules into states regarding public spending and contracts (and the sustainability of debt issues) in which the word TRANSPARENCY is frequently found and here we find a prime example of the EU Commission breaking the rules they once designed and were then approved for the states. In this case Pfizer’s contract, if only for the amount it involves should be subject to the “armonized” rules that apply in the EU for these kind of contracts. This is a red flag for the Comission and if it passes undisturbed, as Corbishley’s article signals, it would be a call for any informed EU citizen to loose confidence in EU institutions, treaties and regulations. A very large red flag should I say, very much as what they like to show member states when they do not comply.

    Then there is this fixation of the ruling classes, particularly the conservative types to rely on consultants, extremely expensive consultants. It seems to me that here, in this particular case with the vaccines all the “comitology” that should have been involved in the process should be carefully reviewed and check whether the standard procedures have been bent or bypassed including required consultations with the regions committee, stakeholders comittee(s), parliaments, experts etc and whether it could be argued if some firms like McKinsey are playing roles in EC politics that the treaties had put in other hands.

    1. Mikel

      “…Needless to say EU regulations and directives put strict rules into states regarding public spending and contracts (and the sustainability of debt issues) in which the word TRANSPARENCY is frequently found and here we find a prime example of the EU Commission breaking the rules they once designed and were then approved for the states…”

      Isn’t the EU supposed to be part of the “rules based order” ?

      That’s why this “rules based order” platitude/mantra, that rolls off the tongues of corporate CEOs, politicians, and assorted pundits and appointees, carries zero weight.

      “Rip-Off Based Order” is closer to the truth.
      Or “Rentier Based Order” has a ring….

      1. Ignacio

        The question is that EU institutions should follow a “procedure-based order” in which procedures are designed to ensure that no stakeholder wasn’t consulted and issued an opinion and all those all opinions and consultancies accompany the procedure to the decision making at the Council. Well, if one considers that some urgency was required in vaccine decision making and then a ‘special procedure’, followed for these reasons the least is that everything in the process should have been kept for the record.

  4. caucus99percenter

    People may scoff at the US electoral college, but even more indirect and opaque to ordinary non-expert citizens is the process by which VdL became president of the European Commission, when her name as possible maxima leaderess never even came up during the European Parliament election campaign preceding.

    1. Bart Hansen

      Could it be like Dick Cheney with Bush’s vice presidency, she was asked to find the best candidate for EC president and eventually found herself to be most qualified?

  5. Lex

    Clearly text messages were used because VDL understands that they are not official and won’t be subject to transparency rules. It worked and the response will be a slow-moving and ineffective new rule making process to make text messages accessible for transparency purposes.

    I’ve bribed my way along in Russia and S. Korea. The latter had more “rules” about how to do so without being clearly illegal, the former was the late 90’s there were no rules. I much prefer the corruption of non-western places where it simply is what it is. The legalistic corruption in the west is far slimier.

    1. orlbucfan

      Corruption is corruption, irregardless of where it originates. And the mindset infected by it? Why does it always climb to the top of the ladder of human power?

  6. The Rev Kev

    Well if they are serious about getting copies of all those text messages, they could always go ask for a copy from the NSA. THye could flick the EU a copy in no time. In any case, what we call corruption is just the EU system working as designed. To a large extent, the whole edifice to me looks like a mechanism to shut out the voters from having any say in the EU and a small elite behind the scenes running things to their advantage. Ursula von der Leyen is merely a product of this system. A corrupt, contemptible, scheming, crazy product. What is that you say? The Members of the European Parliament may not get on board with this whole scheme? They are typically too distracted-

    Can you imagine that happening in Congress?

    1. caucus99percenter

      What’s that saying I’ve seen here? “Kill me now”? Or was it “Kill it with fire”?

      Anyway, “interpretive dancers snaking through the Capitol” = a fine idea for anyone thinking of staging a sequel to 1/6.

    2. fjallstrom

      Sure, NSA has it. Curtesy of EU security services.

      A year ago a scandal broke in Denmark when it leaked that they spied on neighbouring countries politicians and sharing that data with NSA. Unless Denmark is super special one can assume that other states security services spy on neighbouring politicians and share the data with the NSA too.

      So NSA and various EU security services knows what vdL texted, but that is secret. Need to protect the state from political embarrasment and all that. Besides, what is public can’t be used for black mail if needed.

      However, text messages are not that ephemeral to beign with. While the Data Retention Directive has been badly mauled in the courts, in particular for conflicting with GDPR, most states still enforce mass storage of communications for 6 to 24 months. So if there is enough suspicion of a serious enough crime under Belgain law, a Belgian prosecutor could probably still order up vdL’s text messages.

      Not that I think it will happen, mind you. If it happened it would mean that the surveilliance state could be used to prosecute corruption in high offices, and that would be bad for the holders of the high offices which would in turn be bad for the surveilliance state.

  7. digi_owl

    From a semi-outsider perspective, EU has long felt like a fig leaf excuse by European bigwigs for getting their way even when local public opinion is against them.

  8. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Nick.

    From 2007 – 16, I worked with EU institutions as a bank lobbyist, largely on investment services and, post 2008, the reforms to strengthen banks and financial markets.

    All of our discussions were logged and minuted and records retained for several years, if not decades. Annually, a reminder of responsibilities was issued to both parties. I find it hard to believe these records were destroyed.

    McKinsey has a long and inglorious role in EU affairs. It advised the EU on the restructuring of banks after 2008 and policed the actions taken, but was allowed to also advise the firms and invest in them. Conflicts of interests? Chinese walls? What are they?

    VD Leyen is descended from and married into generations of gentry and aristocrats, dating to her English ancestors making a fortune in wool in the late middle and early modern ages. Their neighbours and competitors were the Washington and Spencer / Spencer-Churchill families in the south midlands, but, unlike the Washingtons and Spencers, did not marry into these families.

    She went to the same Brussels school as Boris Johnson and his siblings in the 1970s. Boris Stanleyevich’s dad was an EU official. Rules are not for people / elites like them.

  9. upstater

    Nick, Pfizer may be the largest vaccine manufacturer in the G7 world, but Wiki says:

    Serum Institute of India (SII) is an Indian biotechnology and biopharmaceuticals company, based in Pune. It is the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines.[4][5] It was founded by Cyrus Poonawalla in 1966[6] and is a part of Cyrus Poonawalla Group.[7]

    Of course, this brings up the whole corruption and protectionism issue of the vaccine intellectual property and trade secrets of the G7 bloc and its enforcers in the EU, WTO, etc. There certainly is the talent and competence outside the “world” as viewed by this bloc to manufacture and research vaccines. One can only imagine if neoliberalism didn’t exist what the course of COVID-19 might have been.

    1. Nick Corbishley Post author

      You’re right Upstater. My Western biases betrayed me (hangs head in shame). Have duly amended the text. Thanks.

  10. Jesper

    About the McKinsey connections:

    Sales can be done in many different ways, one is through ‘relationship’-selling. At least that is what we called it a long time ago when I was in sales. The short of it was to build strong relationships with customers and thereby have an advantage whey they’re about to buy. Nothing illegal in it, at least not automatically. Some things that are more difficult to evaluate can be bought mostly based on relationship. Consultancy-services is said to be difficult to evaluate beforehand leading to that might need to be bought on trust (relationship).

    Now to alumni-programs. Some schools have them, sold as free lunch or dinner for the benefit of the alumni but somehow it happens that it ends up with the school asking alumni for donations.
    It so happens that some consultancy-firms also have alumni-programs. McKinsey has one:

    Possibly the alumni-events/programs is all about kindness, possibly there are benefits for the company to have them.

    Also, possibly some regulation relating to Politcally Exposed Person (PEP) might need to be put into place. However, the ones who might be ask to implement such regulations might be just the ones who would lose out if such regulations were to be put into place and enforced:

  11. Paul Wright

    If you tried doing that during the procurement phase for absolutely anything using EU funding, you’d be fired immediately (with due course) – and never get a job related to EU public sector money again…

    Strange how only the ‘little guys’ need to follow the clearly written rules.

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