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26th Sep 2020

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14 lobbyist meetings with Oettinger and Canete went unminuted

  • Commissioners Miguel Arias Canete (l) and Guenther Oettinger at a meeting of the college of commissioners (Photo: European Commission)

The two EU commissioners who most often meet with lobbyists did not have any minutes or notes taken of 14 meetings with companies such as Goldman Sachs, Statoil, Suez, and Peugeot.

The lack of any recording or transcript of the meetings makes it difficult for journalists and the public to know more about what was discussed - but also raises questions about the working methods of the commissioners.

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EUobserver requested (in two separate applications) documents related to seven meetings held by EU commission vice-president Guenther Oettinger, responsible for budgetary matters, and seven meetings held by Miguel Arias Canete, commissioner responsible for climate action.

The two are among the most important of the EU's 28 commissioners.

The commission released some email exchanges between the commission and the company requesting the meeting, as well as some preparatory documents, implying that there were no minutes for any of the 14 meetings.

In an appeal, this website asked the commission to check again for "minutes or other records made at any of the seven meetings" held with Canete.

Jordi Ayet Puigarnau, director of the commission's register, sent EUobserver a letter dated 6 August, in which he wrote that the commission had carried out a "renewed, thorough search for documents".

"Following this renewed search, I confirm that the European Commission does not hold any further documents that would correspond to the description given in your application," wrote Puigarnau.

The EU's access to documents rules only give citizens the right to request already-existing documents.

No paper trail

It is not the first time that it has emerged that EU commissioners held lobby meetings without someone taking notes.

On 24 October 2017, Oettinger and Canete met with German car company Daimler in Strasbourg without leaving any paper trail.

The day after, their colleague Jyrki Katainen, vice-president in charge of jobs and growth, met with former commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso in a hotel in Brussels, also without notes being taken.

The Katainen-Barroso meeting was controversial because Barroso, now employed by Goldman Sachs, had promised not to lobby the commission on behalf of the bank, which had been heavily criticised for its role in the Greek debt crisis.

Margarida Silva is a lobby transparency campaigner at the not-for-profit Corporate Europe Observatory organisation, which has scrutinised interactions between Goldman Sachs and the commission.

She said that her group has also asked for minutes of Goldman Sachs meetings held by Katainen, and with commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis (responsible for euro and social dialogue).

Silva said that it happened "a lot" that the commission - in reply to an access to documents request - says that minutes of meetings with commissioners do not exist.

She said that no rules are being broken, but criticised a lack of note-taking as a "bad practice" and "very odd".

"If you are having a professional meeting, you take notes," she said.

The campaigner added that it was also a matter of keeping track of what was said by whom.

Since beginning of the current commission administration in November 2014, led by Jean-Claude Juncker, Oettinger has held 537 meetings; Canete held 368.

There are examples of minutes or summaries of commissioner meetings with lobbyists being released to the public, but it is unclear how often this is done, and whether the level of note-taking differs between commissioners.

In an interview with EUobserver about his meeting with Barroso, Katainen said that his cabinet normally takes notes of lobby meetings - but that he met Barroso as a friend.

"When I have a private beer with friends, I don't take notes what my friend is saying to me," said Katainen.

"But if somebody is lobbying to me, then of course there is somebody from the cabinet always who is taking notes," he added.

EU commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said on Thursday (9 August) that she had no statistics available to say whether minute-keeping by commissioners was more the exception or the rule.

She referred to the transparency register, which Juncker had set up at the beginning of his mandate.

"I think it is good practice internally to also inform colleagues what is discussed, but towards the public we communicate via the transparency register, where you can see what was discussed."

But while the register is an improvement on transparency compared to the Barroso commission, it is not overly detailed.

For example, the entry in the register for Oettinger's meeting with Goldman Sachs held on 11 December 2017 merely said that they talked about "FINTECH/digital issues".

A meeting he had with car lobby group Acea on 6 September 2017 was registered as being about "connected and automated driving".

Canete's meeting with Suez Group on 30 January 2018 was summarised as about the commission's Clean Energy Package, while his discussion with law firm Latham & Watkins LLP, on 1 February 2018, was filed with the topic "State of Play of Energy and Climate Policy".

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