19th Mar 2018

EU officials kept tobacco meetings under wraps

  • The European Commission is violating UN rules on tobacco and lobbying, says the EU ombudsman (Photo: EUobserver)

Ties between the European Commission and the tobacco industry have been hidden from public scrutiny in contravention to UN rules.

The findings, released on Monday (5 October) by European Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly, point to long-held suspicions of corporate lawyers lobbying senior staff under the previous Commission steered by Jose Manuel Barroso.

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  • O’Reilly says the current Commission must publish all its minutes and meetings with tobacco representatives without having to be asked (Photo: European Union)

She says that the Commission’s argument that it is transparent because it publishes materials upon access requests or on demand from MEPs is not good enough.

“This effectively means that if no questions are asked, meetings with tobacco lobbyists remain undisclosed”, said her office in a statement.

She found that meetings held between the Commission and lawyers representing the tobacco industry "were not considered as meetings for the purpose of lobbying."

O’Reilly says the current Commission must publish all its minutes and meetings with tobacco representatives without having to be asked. She wants a response before the end of the year on how they intend to do it.

Failure to do so would be a violation of the WHO's Tobacco Control Convention, which bans commercial and vested interests on public health policies on tobacco control.

The issue is sensitive because EU-wide laws on tobacco were revised under the Barroso mandate.

Barroso sacked his commissioner for health, John Dalli, in 2012 over alleged ties in a bungled bribery that involved tobacco lobbyists.

But the move did not dispel suspicions of insider influence.

Former head of the commission’s legal services, Michel Petite, became a corporate lawyer whose clients include US tobacco firm Philip Morris.

The same individual later headed the European Commission ethical committee that monitors departing commissioners looking for new jobs. He also played a minor but key role in Dalli’s dismissal.

Unable to shake off broader suspicions of insider influence, Barroso’s office went on the defence in 2014 and told this website that it fully abides by the WHO convention rules on meetings between the tobacco industry and tobacco regulators.

It said it had made public the minutes of the meetings that took place in 2011 and 2012 between DG SANCO, the main service responsible for preparing the tobacco products directive, and the tobacco industry.

“Information has been made available in accordance with the rules on public access to documents”, said Barroso’s spokersperson at the time in an email.

She stated that Barroso's office had also provided information to the European Parliament on contacts with the tobacco industry in response to questions on Dalli.

“All meetings that took place have been disclosed in the Commission's replies to the European Parliament. It is therefore wrong to speak about undisclosed meetings”, the spokesperson added.

But such statements have riled pro-transparency NGOs who first issued the complaint to O'Reilly.

Brussels-based Corporate Europe Observatory, along with other NGOs in January 2013, wrote a letter to Barroso, asking him to stick to article 5(3) of the WHO rules and publish the meetings and minutes between tobacco groups in all of its directorate-generals.

The NGOs had uncovered at least 14 undisclosed meetings involving top Commission officials from the secretariat-general and members of Commission president Barroso's cabinet.

Last year, EUobserver published an investigation shedding new light on the Dalli lobbying scandal

Commission rejects ombudsman criticism over Barroso case

The European Commission repeated that it followed the rules when its former head joined Goldman Sachs - and suggested it will not follow the EU Ombudsman's demand to refer the case back to the ethics committee.

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