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21st Apr 2019

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Missing: Paper trail of EU meetings with Big Tech

  • EU justice commissioner Vera Jourova (c) met with Microsoft's head of its Brussels office, John Frank (r) 29 November 2017. The meeting, for which no records exist, was also attended by former US attorney general Eric Holder (Photo: European Commission)

The European Commission did not keep any written records of what was said during meetings between EU commissioner Vera Jourova and several technology companies, a response to an EUobserver access to documents request reveals.

Reacting to the news at a press conference on Monday (4 February), Jourova said she did not know why no minutes had been produced, and that they should have been.

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EUobserver had asked the commission for all documents related to several meetings Jourova had in 2017 and 2018.

The commission released a so-called "flash report", which summarised a discussion Jourova had in July 2018 with the vice-president of Amazon, Barbara Scarafia, and the internet company's main EU lobbyist James Waterworth.

But such records turned out not to exist for Jourova's encounters with IBM CEO Ginni Rometty (11 October 2017), Google senior vice-president Kent Walker (17 November 2017), Microsoft top EU lobbyist John Frank (29 November 2017), and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg (January 2018).

The commission did keep briefings given to Jourova in advance of the meetings, but there are no records which detail what she actually said, and how those executives responded.

"I will give you a very honest answer," said Jourova when asked about the lack of records.

"I don't know why we didn't record what we spoke about, and I would wish to have such reports," she added.

"It would help me also to prove to society what we are doing and where we are directing, and how difficult sometimes these debates are," she said.

"I will look into it. I will be only happy to bring more transparency into what we do, not only with IT sector," said the Czech commissioner.

Those comments come closest to an acknowledgement that it would be good practice for EU commissioners to always have written minutes of what they discuss with lobbyists.

Since late 2016, EUobserver has reported that no paper trail existed for: a meeting between Germany's EU commissioner Guenther Oettinger and Volkswagen about Dieselgate; 14 meetings by Oettinger and climate commissioner Miguel Arias Canete with companies like Goldman Sachs, Statoil, Suez, and Peugeot; six meetings by commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, including with bankers and multinational CEOs; a dinner in a private club organised by oil and gas firm ExxonMobil, attended by EU commissioner Christos Stylianides and other Cypriot officials; and several meetings by the vice-president of the European Commission in charge of jobs, Jyrki Katainen, despite his pledge that a cabinet member "always" takes notes.

When EUobserver revealed how Juncker's meetings went undocumented last year, a commission spokeswoman said that the commission was fulfilling its transparency requirements.

"There is no obligation to have minutes being taken," said a commission spokeswoman.

Indeed, the commission is in charge of its own transparency rules. Since Juncker took office in November 2014, commissioners are required to document who they meet, when, and provide the subject of the meeting.

However, the subject entered into the database can be very broad, such as "current reflections about the future of Europe".

One can file an access to documents request to find out more, but only information that is actually in some form of document is part of the EU's transparency regulation.

Beyond transparency, it also raises questions as to how busy commissioners can keep track of what they discussed or said to lobbyists, if there is no proper documentation.

Jourova, for example, has met 168 lobbyists since taking office in November 2014.

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