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Pfizer’s Happy Bath in the Brussels Swamp

So much for transparency.

Illustration: Pfizer Inc
(Photo credit should read CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

An apocryphal quote attributed to Henry Kissinger has him asking in jest, “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” The great diplomat may have struggled to find the Continent’s locus of ultimate power, but Pfizer apparently had no such trouble. The pharma giant knew exactly whom in Brussels to call—or text message, to be more precise—to get a Covid vaccine deal going. That person was European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Last week, E.U. Ombudswoman Emily O’Reilly slammed von der Leyen for continuing to stonewall her nine months since it first came to light that the commission president had exchanged text messages with Pfizer chief Albert Bourla at the height of the pandemic, “forging a relationship that unlocked lucrative deals for life-saving coronavirus vaccines,” as the Guardian put it.

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More specifically, Pfizer clinched a deal to deliver 1.8 billion doses of its vaccine to the European Union. Initially priced at €15.50 (or $18.90) per dose, the Pfizer vaccine ultimately cost the European Union €19.50 per dose, or €35 billion in total, most of it paid for by member states (though the E.U. itself underwrote €2.5 billion in upfront production expenses). Von der Leyen is reported to have played a personal role in the deal, at least in the “preliminary negotiations,” a highly unusual step for the head of a body otherwise notorious for its rigorous proceduralism.

“I think the Commission has a responsibility to come clean, even if this is difficult politically,” O’Reilly told France 24. “Because you’re talking about the trust of citizens in relation to a very important issue. Otherwise people who are anti-vax or hostile to the EU can paint an unfair narrative of what happens in the EU.”

As a committed Brussels mandarin, O’Reilly of course has to frame the scandal as a matter of fending off favorite E.U. bogeys: anti-vaxxers, Euroskeptics, etc. But her underlying point is sound. At its best, the European Union was supposed to pool the power of many nations that individually would have been too weak and easy to divide when facing large corporate actors. The union, moreover, routinely lectures the rest of the world, including its own members in Eastern Europe, about transparency and accountability.

Yet here von der Leyen appears to have circumvented the normal negotiating process to strike a personal deal with Pfizer. And when pressed to clear the air and release the communications, her commission has declared, in effect: Bullocks to transparency.

The New York Times first reported on the exchanges between von der Leyen and Bourla last April. Since then, the commission’s behavior in response to journalists and even E.U. investigative bodies has been downright thuggish. When the outlet netzpolitik.org requested access to the texts, the commission flatly refused. That prompted an inquiry by O’Reilly, the E.U. ombudswoman, who was told by the commission that it couldn’t find the texts—and wasn't required to archive them in the first place.

“Due to their short-lived and ephemeral nature,” said Commission Vice President Vera Jourova, text messages “in general do not contain important information relating to policies, activities and decisions of the Commission.” Therefore, “short-lived, ephemeral documents are not kept.“ Jourova added, “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.”

Pfizer denies the texts involved vaccine negotiations (yeah, OK). Other E.U. actors are alarmed. This month, the European Parliament’s Covid committee voted to ban Bourla and other Pfizer executives from the E.U. legislative body, with all ideological blocs—save, shamefully, for the center-right European People’s Party and the liberal Renew Europe delegation—backing the measure. European lawmakers have also summoned von der Leyen to testify about her role in the Pfizer negotiations, though the parliament sadly lacks the formal subpoena and investigative powers of, say, the U.S. Congress, and so far the commission president has openly defied it. E.U. prosecutors are also getting involved, though no one knows if von der Leyen is a target of their probe.

All this jars with the permanent hum of liberal moral sanctimony that serves as the soundtrack of E.U. operations. The bloc, for example, continues to withhold Covid support funds from Hungary, and slow-walked similar financial aid to Poland, both on “rule-of-law” grounds. But the same standards apparently don’t apply to politically connected U.S. corporations, nor to the high E.U. officials whom they can text as they please when they want to get things done.