What is happening in the European Union, the European Commission and the European Council? What are their aims and ambitions, and where does the EU money go to? Read more
What is happening in the European Union, the European Commission and the European Council? What are their aims and ambitions, and where does the EU money go to?
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Europe's leaders wipe out their tracks by deleting e-mails and text messages
Government leaders from all over Europe have made a habit of deleting their text messages and emails. They wipe out their traces, escaping accountability and making it impossible for watchdogs to unveil the truth about what happened during crucial moments in history. In doing so, politicians avoid public scrutiny, undermining people’s faith in Europe’s institutions and those in power.
In July 2015, the relationship between the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had hit a new low. Exhausted from heated negotiations throughout the night, they were just inches away from Greece exiting the euro. On 16 July, the Associated Press reported that ‘a single text message rescued the talks – and possibly the euro’.
According to the report, at a certain point, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, waiting outside the closed doors with the other European leaders, texted European Council President Donald Tusk, proposing a compromise that somehow appealed to all of the parties involved. Within an hour, the deal was clinched and the euro had been saved.
‘No text or other instant messages sent to or by the European Council President have been registered so far by the General Secretariat of the Council’
As significant as it was, this crucial message is a piece of history that most likely will never come to light. When Follow the Money filed a request for access to documents with the European Council, its response was: ‘No text or other instant messages sent to or by the European Council President have been registered so far by the GSC [General Secretariat of the Council].’
Those sending text messages are not much better: for years, Rutte himself made a habit of deleting his text messages on a daily basis, as was revealed by the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant in May 2022. Rutte would only pass on those he considered worth saving to his staff. The prime minister called his method ‘real-time archiving’, but experts found this to be a breach of the Dutch freedom of information rules.
Rutte isn’t the only offender. A cross-border collaboration of journalists has found that this kind of unlawful deletion of text messages and emails is a structural problem throughout Europe. In an investigative project named #Missingmails, Follow the Money in collaboration with De Tijd (Belgium), Le Monde (France), Welt (Germany), DEO.dk (Denmark), The Journal & Noteworthy (Ireland), Apache (Belgium), Context (Romania) and Netzpolitik.org (Germany), the practices of the leaders of European governments and EU institutions have been examined to bring to light the scope and impact of obstructing accountability in this manner.
Short Merkel Service
Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel – one of the most powerful European leaders in recent decades – was known for her extensive use of text messages. Some people even joked that SMS stood for ‘Short Merkel Service’.
Yet none of these messages ever seem to end up in official files. Moreover, in Germany the Chancellery and several ministries also routinely delete entire mailboxes as soon as staff and officials leave – whether a simple clerk’s mailbox, or a former head of government’s such as Merkel’s. As was the case with Rutte, the practice relies on the assumption that all government officials will themselves pass on important messages, ensuring that these are archived, while the rest may be destroyed.
This way of thinking is embraced by top officials at the very heart of European power too, at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, is herself guilty of this practice: she was already under scrutiny for deleting text messages when she was the German minister of Defence.
A German parliamentary inquiry committee looked into inflated contracts with consultancy companies under Von der Leyen’s watch at the defence ministry. It transpired that her phone had been wiped clean. Like other leaders, she claimed that she had checked it for relevant messages first and had not found any.
When Von der Leyen subsequently moved to Brussels in 2019, she continued to hide crucial information from the public eye. By July 2022, EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly had already found the European Commission guilty of maladministration. The Commission had refused to release text messages sent by Von der Leyen about a multi-billion euro vaccine deal. Apparently, Von der Leyen had exchanged text messages on vaccine procurement with the CEO of vaccine maker Pfizer.
‘The Commission has been deleting documents on a massive scale’
Sophie in ’t Veld, a Dutch Member of the European Parliament, recently criticised these practices, stating that ‘the Commission has been deleting documents on a massive scale, including minutes from closed meetings, reports and internal documents, as a consequence of software introduced by former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in 2015, which deletes emails automatically after six months, unless they are registered’.
She also slammed the Commission’s view that text messages should not be archived and disclosed because they were considered ‘short lived documents’. Yet this wasn’t the only case in which the Commission evaded public scrutiny.
Last year, the Uber Files investigation organised by The Guardian revealed how Neelie Kroes – while still an EU Commissioner – collaborated with the US company Uber, which would subsequently hire her as a lobbyist. She supported the company publicly as a Commissioner, while Uber was already planning to recruit her when she left office. Although people Kroes worked with had also exchanged emails with Uber, the Commission found nearly no record of these when transparency campaigners Corporate Europe Observatory requested access to documents about the contacts.
Yet the EU legislation governing access to documents states that it should apply ‘to all documents held by an institution, that is to say, documents drawn up or received by it and in its possession, in all areas of activity of the European Union’.
Legal scholars see a direct contradiction between the Commission guidelines allowing the destruction of emails and the letter of the law. ‘Whether the requested document is registered or not does not affect the obligation to review whether it should be released,’ says Finnish professor Päivi Leino-Sandberg, a specialist in transnational European law.
The European Ombudsman agrees with Leino-Sandberg, finding in the case of Von der Leyen’s text messages that it is not ‘relevant whether a document has been registered in the institution’s document management system’.
In a fresh development, The New York Times and its Brussels bureau chief Matina Stevis-Gridneff sued the Commission at the General Court of the European Union in January 2023, for failing to disclose the text messages between the Commission President and the CEO of Pfizer.
Although many important emails and text messages have probably been lost forever, some things seem to be slowly changing. In Germany, several members of parliament are taking initiatives to retrieve information. In France, Belgium, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands, deleting important information has also led to heated debate and sparked initiatives to force governments to become more transparent.
Thus far, it seems as if the Dutch and Danish governments are the most willing to learn from past mistakes. In April 2023, Rutte’s government announced a reform. Government members are no longer allowed to delete their text messages. Deletion must be avoided in future, especially regarding messages of high-ranking officials and politicians.
Similarly, since 2021 Danish directives also require ministers’ emails and text messages to be stored for at least 25 years. In July 2022, the Danish justice ministry instructed ministers to not delete their text messages and download them regularly for preservation – for example in case an inquiry committee needed them.
With regard to the European Commission, MEP In ’t Veld feels that the European Parliament should step up its game as well. ‘It must be said, though, that the European Parliament has failed dramatically to do its duty and hold the Commission to account,’ she says. ‘Meanwhile the EU Ombudsman has issued a ruling, the EU Court of Auditors has criticised the matter, and the NYT has gone to court. Parliament as a democratic watchdog is being overtaken by others. This parliamentary weakness is extremely alarming at times where the EU is rapidly gaining new powers.’
With thanks to Lise Witteman