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24th Oct 2020

China spy suspect had EU permission to work as lobbyist

  • Gerhard Sabathil (l) worked for EU for two years after Germany stripped him of security status (Photo: EEAS.europe.eu)

The EU ambassador suspected of spying for China, Gerhard Sabathil, got official permission to work as a lobbyist, the EU External Action Service [EEAS] has said.

He also continued to work for the EU for almost two years after Germany raised a red flag on his integrity.

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Sabathil had worked for EU institutions for more than 30 years, including as the EU ambassador to South Korea, before immediately joining a German lobbying firm, Eutop, in 2017, which has offices in Brussels, Berlin, and Munich.

His name hit the headlines last week when German newspaper Der Spiegel said German prosecutors were going after him for leaking EU business secrets to China.

But for its part, the EU foreign service said Sabathil's lobbying appointment did not break the rules.

"On the specific case [Sabathil], I can assure you that the procedures were respected," an EEAS spokeswoman told EUobserver.

"The appointing authority [an EU ethics body] put conditions on the activities of the person you are referring to, including the condition to abstain from lobbying staff of the EEAS, the [European] Commission and the [EU] Council on questions related to external action, including trade and development cooperation, during the first 12 months of his [Eutop] contract," she said.

"His obligation of confidentiality continued to apply without any limitation in time," she added.

"This obligation - to be exact - is that: 'An official shall refrain from any unauthorised disclosure of [secret] information received in the line of duty'," the EEAS spokeswoman said.

Under staff regulations, senior EU officials must ask an internal EU ethics body for permission to do any lobby work in the two years after they have left.

They must not lobby their old EU colleagues for at least 12 months after.

And they must act with "integrity and discretion" in order to "safeguard its [the EU's] reputation towards the public".

Whether Sabathil kept his EU promises in his time as "managing director" at Eutop remains to be seen in the ongoing German investigation.

But for their part, German authorities decided as far back as 2015 that Sabathil, a dual German-Hungarian national, was not to be trusted.

Member states' own security services are responsible for vetting nationals who go to work for EU institutions.

And shortly after Sabathil left his post as EU ambassador in Seoul in September 2015 "his national security authority withdrew his security clearance", the EEAS said.

"He was subsequently recalled to headquarters [in Brussels] in 2016 upon the notification of the withdrawal by the competent authority," the EEAS added, but he kept hanging around there until he "retired" at the end of August 2017 despite the German decision.

The EU foreign service has long faced criticism on its nonchalant security culture.

And for some, the Sabathil lobbying permit was not quite correctly handled despite the EEAS assurances.

"His transfer was not published as required by the rules. His name does not appear in the 2016 to 2018 reports on EU officials moving to the private sector," the office of Daniel Freund, a German Green MEP, told this website.

"It must [also] be investigated whether the lobbying company Eutop has breached the [EU] code of conduct for lobbyists," his office said.

The Sabathil case comes shortly after Bruno Dethomas, who headed the Eastern Partnership Task Force in the EU foreign service, dealing with Russia, moved to lobbying firm Gplus, which lobbies for Russia in Brussels.

And even if they and others like them followed the letter of the staff regulations, the EU needs "an independent ethics authority" instead of an internal one to make sure there is no foul play, the MEP's office said.

It also needs a US-type law, like the Foreign Agents Registration Act, to force lobby firms to disclose if they work for foreign powers, Freund's office added.

"The influence of third countries on the policies of the European institutions through lobbying firms has not been regulated so far," it warned.

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