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23rd Mar 2019

Exclusive

'Big 3' EU candidates won't pledge lobbyist minutes

  • Jean-Claude Juncker (l) with Manfred Weber. A February meeting between the outgoing EPP president and the EPP candidate to replace him took place without a written record from either side (Photo: European Commission)

The candidates from the three biggest EU political families to become the next European Commission president have all turned down an opportunity to commit to keeping recorded minutes of meetings with lobbyists if elected.

EUobserver asked the pan-European political families whether their candidates would commit to in principle have minutes created of their meetings with politicians and lobbyists, if they succeed Jean-Claude Juncker this year.

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  • Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt (l) gave a 'clear yes' to better record-keeping, but conservative candidate Jan Zahradil stressed that 'given the sometimes sensitive nature of discussions, not everything can be fully minuted' (Photo: European Parliament)

The question is relevant because in the past 2.5 years more and more examples became public about lobby meetings that went unrecorded - which is not only problematic from a transparency point of view, but also raises questions about whether the commission as a public body is being properly governed.

According to the commission's own rules, there is no obligation to produce minutes. But it seems strange that no minutes exist for so many meetings.

After all, who has professional meetings without a record of what is said, in order to refer back to at future discussions?

This website also asked the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), currently the largest political group in the European Parliament, to comment on a recent meeting between Juncker (an EPP member) and EPP lead candidate Manfred Weber.

The EU commission had told EUobserver that no minutes or other documents existed in relating to that meeting, which took place on 5 February.

On Weber's side, no written evidence of what was discussed exists either.

"This meeting is part of the exchanges which the commission president and the chairman of the EPP group regularly have on current affairs," said EPP spokesman Pedro Lopez in a written statement.

"There are no minutes," he specified.

Lopez ignored a question as to whether Weber would commit, in principle if elected president, to have minutes drawn up of meetings with lobbyists and politicians.

The non-response on this from Weber is striking, given previous remarks about needing to improve EU transparency and his support for "an efficient and accountable commission".

However, the other leading candidate - for the centre-left Party of European Socialists, Frans Timmermans - also did not give a clear commitment. Instead, he pointed to other EU institutions - the European Parliament and the national governments' forum, the Council of the EU.

"Nobody has done more for promoting transparency than Frans Timmermans, who continues to negotiate with the European parliament and council on a mandatory transparency register," said a spokesperson for his campaign.

Timmermans is currently Juncker's right-hand man as first vice-president of the commission, which is striving to have the other two EU institutions to commit to only meeting with lobbyists that are registered.

"Once they commit to doing as much as the commission, then he would be ready to talk about possible next steps," the Timmermans campaign added.

A third candidate, Jan Zahradil, only wanted to commit that commissioners "publicly log all their meetings with lobbyists and politicians with date, agenda and participants of the meetings" - as is currently already the rule, introduced by Juncker himself in 2014.

Czech MEP Zahradil is the lead candidate for the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, currently the third-largest political force in the EU parliament.

"Member states, parliament as well as the public should be able to scrutinise the work and activities of the commission," the conservative added.

"But we have to be realistic that, given the sometimes sensitive nature of discussions, not everything can be fully minuted," Zahradil said.

'A clear yes'

Smaller groups and parties were more willing to sign up to EUobserver's call for better record-keeping of meetings.

"Mr Verhofstadt fully supports this indeed. A clear "yes" from him," said a spokesman for the European Liberals and Democrats (Alde).

The liberals do not have a single candidate to succeed Juncker, although Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte and Danish EU commissioner for competition Margrethe Vestager are regularly mentioned as possible candidates in the Brussels rumour mill.

Belgian MEP and former prime minister Guy Verhofstadt is the group's leader in the parliament.

Dutch MEP Bas Eickhout, one of two candidates for the Greens, said in a statement that the commission "should have a standard of publishing documents by default, unless there is a strong argument against".

He acknowledged the commission already published which lobbyists they met.

"However, the president of the commission should set an example when it comes to transparency of EU decision-making and, as a matter of good administrative practice, they should keep records of the important meetings they've had, and provide access to them in line with the access to documents rules," said Eickhout.

'Self-evident'

A spokeswoman for the European Left said "the logging of such meetings seems necessary to us in the sense of transparency and the recovery of confidence in the policy and should be self-evident".

A spokesman for the new Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25), with which former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis is associated, also said his party signed up to the pledge.

Last month, Vera Jourova, responsible for justice affairs, was the first EU commissioner to acknowledge that there should have been records of what was said during her meetings with several technology companies like Facebook and Google.

The lack of records make it difficult for citizens and journalists to know what EU officials promise lobbyists, but also raise questions about how commission members themselves can at a later date follow-up on the innumerable meetings they hold as part of their portfolio.

Case study: Pascal Lamy

In January, Juncker met with Pascal Lamy, who is not only a former EU trade commissioner and former director-General of the World Trade Organization, but also a private consultant for the global Brunswick group.

At EUobserver's request, the commission released email exchanges with the Jacques Delors Institute, which had requested the meeting on behalf of Lamy, who is president-emeritus of that Paris-based think tank.

In the last email dated before the meeting took place, Juncker's cabinet asked the institute what Lamy wanted to discuss with Juncker. There was no reply.

Also missing from the documents released are any minutes of what Lamy and Juncker discussed.

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