EU Commission ‘has a responsibility to come clean’ on ‘Pfizergate’: EU Ombudsman

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Emily O’Reilly, who heads the EU Ombudsman, says she has been stonewalled by the European Commission when asking for information in relation to the “Pfizergate” affair. At the core of this controversy is an exchange of text messages between the EU Commission chief and the CEO of Pfizer in the run-up to a major contract signed between the EU and the pharmaceutical company for a Covid-19 vaccine. O’Reilly says this is a very important issue of citizens’ trust in the EU. She also weighs in on the various transparency reform plans in the wake of the Qatargate bribery scandal that continues to ripple across the European Parliament.

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Asked about “Pfizergate”, the EU Ombusdman says she asked for information about the text messages, but that “we were basically stonewalled by the Commission. And the Commission still hasn’t really admitted that the text messages exist, but it’s clear that they do.”

She continues: “I think the Commission has a responsibility to come clean, even if this is difficult politically. 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.”

Asked whether things are moving in the direction of an independent ethics body in the light of the Qatargate scandal, O’Reilly affirms: “Rhetorically, perhaps. Realistically, perhaps not. This is not just down to the EU Parliament. The Commission needs to come on board. The Council and the member states need to come on board. Whatever emerges will take a long time to emerge, and whether it will be the pure investigative body that we’ve heard about rhetorically, remains to be seen.”

O’Reilly also points out that there is a precedent for the current plans to set up an ethics body. “The European Commission has an ad hoc ethical committee. It’s called an independent body, but, in truth, it isn’t. It doesn’t have the power, on its own initiative, to investigate matters. It has to wait for the Commission to ask it to investigate. It has just three members, and we’ve called for more members, but not necessarily from the European institutions. But rather, representing a wider swathe of society, of civil society, so that you get different perspectives, and not just institutional perspectives.”

With her former career in public service in Ireland in mind, Talking Europe asks Emily O’Reilly about Brexit and Northern Ireland. “There’s a sort of creeping trust in the new British government, and I think that will help the EU to get off the fence that it is on,” she opines. “If there’s political trust and political willingness to get the Northern Ireland protocol sorted, then it certainly will be, and I think the signs are better than they have been for quite a while,” O’Reilly concludes. 

Produced by Isabelle Romero, Perrine Desplats and Sophie Samaille