Sophie in ‘t Veld is a Dutch politician with the Democrats 66 party and a member of the European Parliament.
The text messages between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla have initiated a tug-of-war, as journalists, legislators and private citizens have all been denied access to their communications.
Sent in the early months of the pandemic, at a time when the Commission was negotiating billions of euros worth of vaccine contracts, these texts are crucial for any effort at oversight of the European Union’s response to the pandemic. And yet, the Commission has unilaterally exempted them — and all text messages — from EU transparency rules.
On Friday, the European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly obliterated the Commission’s reasoning for exempting text messages from record-keeping and transparency rules. Yet still, the Commission refuses to allow itself to be held to account.
But as objectionable as the Commission’s behavior may be, this whole affair — or delete-gate as it’s now known — is merely a symptom of a larger problem: a crisis of democratic accountability at the institutional level of the EU. It’s this structural problem that should cause much more uproar than it has thus far.
It doesn’t take a team of lawyers to come to the same conclusion as the EU ombudsman. When giant vaccine deals are conducted via text messages, of course it is important for those providing oversight to be able see them. By denying access, von der Leyen is choosing a path that has only downsides. Not only is she dealing a blow to democratic accountability, she is also casting suspicion on herself, and the EU institutions by extension.
Transparency is the cornerstone of accountability. And in that respect, it is very worrisome that the Commission has become less transparent across the board — a trend that goes against the promises von der Leyen made while securing the parliamentary votes for her election.
So why has she reneged on her promises? Well, because she can. Like many executives around the world, the Commission was given a lot of leeway to conduct crisis management throughout the pandemic. For much of the past two years, the European Parliament has gone too easy on the executive it is supposed to hold accountable, with its leadership shielding the Commission from uncomfortable inspection.
It’s time for that to change. Leeway, once given, is difficult to rein in. But it must be reined in. As long as the Parliament does not assert itself as a democratic check on the Commission’s power, the latter will not feel any pressure to observe democratic norms such as transparency.
With the election of a new Parliament president, Roberta Metsola, there is now an opportunity to break with this unhealthy coziness. But it won’t be easy. We have allowed the muscles needed to hold the Commission to account to become underdeveloped. The chaos of the early days of the pandemic and multiple lockdowns have been a blow to the parliamentary esprit that is usually formed in the first months, as new members learn the ropes and get to know each other.
But frustration among MEPs is growing, and it’s important that frustration be translated into action. MEPs must demand of their leadership that a minimum of scrutiny is reestablished.
Nobody expects flawless execution when dealing with a crisis. Europeans are rightfully grateful to the Commission for having helped procure COVID-19 vaccines. If mistakes were made in the process, there will be many who will give those in charge the benefit of the doubt.
But European citizens also have the right to know what happened. And their representatives have the responsibility to keep a close eye on those in power and to not stay silent when they are barred from looking in.