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10th Jul 2020

EU embassies 'shockingly' opaque about lobbyists

  • Germany's permanent representation in Brussels has told Corporate Europe Observatory it has no records of meetings held with lobbyists (Photo: Peter Teffer)

The Brussels offices of EU member states have a "shockingly poor record of transparency" in relation to meetings with lobbyists, according to a new report published on Wednesday (6 February).

Less than a handful of member countries gave Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) any insight into their lobby meetings, the NGO said.

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  • According to CEO, Greece's Brussels office did not even reply (Photo: Peter Teffer)

"This absence of transparency prevents citizens from having any understanding of who its officials in Brussels are meeting, and how these lobbyists might be trying to influence EU decision-making," said the report.

Each member state has an 'embassy' in the EU's de facto capital Brussels, more correctly called "permanent representations".

The head of the office, the permanent representative, is the country's highest EU diplomat in Brussels. Together, they are responsible for preparing legislation for ministers, and for preparing EU summits.

CEO, a Brussels-based non-profit pressure group, asked 19 of the 28 EU countries' permanent representation for a list of a year's worth of meetings with lobbyists.

Only the Netherlands and Romania fully complied. Ireland gave the group only information relating to meetings with the head and deputy of the Brussels office.

"Analysis of the data provided by Romania, the Netherlands, and Ireland indicates that these permanent representations are a major target for corporate lobbyists, although the lack of transparency by others means it is hard to know how representative this picture is for other permanent representations," the report said.

In the 12 months up to June 2018, the Dutch permanent representation hosted 546 meetings, of which 73 percent were classified by CEO as with corporate lobbyists.

The Dutch employers' organisation VNO-NCW, a member in Brussels of the powerful BusinessEurope lobby, was granted 11 meetings in a year.

Anglo-Dutch oil and gas company Shell visited the Dutch in Brussels nine times. The organisation defending European consumers, BEUC, was also granted eight meetings.

Some 15 percent of the Dutch meetings were with trade unions and NGOs.

That share was slightly higher in the Romanian permanent representation, where trade unions and NGOs represented 19 percent of the meetings, or 160 in total.

The Romanians too though were mostly hosting corporate lobbyists - again, 73 percent.

The Irish EU embassy's senior staff held 76 meetings, but CEO said in the report that for many of the meetings the data "failed to make clear what interests were being represented".

Portugal and the United Kingdom said they kept records of which lobbyists came to meet staff - but refused to share the data with the NGO.

According to CEO, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Germany, and Spain said there were no records, while Austria, Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, and Poland did not reply.

In the period of the group's investigation, Finland started to proactively publish information about lobby meetings. As of Tuesday, only two meetings have been recorded.

Revolving doors

The report also criticised that there was a "lively revolving door" between permanent representations and the corporate world, listing several examples.

For example, for more than a decade, Pierre Sellal was France's permanent representative in Brussels.

But in January 2018, he joined law firm August-Debouzy, which in a press statement boasted of Sellal's past as a public servant.

"His experience is an additional strength with regard to the firm's international growth and in advising clients on their development strategies in Europe and across the world," it said.

By contrast, EU commissioners are required to take a 'cooling-off' period following the end of their mandate, during which they do not work for corporations if there is a conflict of interest.

The period was recently increased from 18 months to two years - and three years for the commission president.

"The revolving door is a widely recognised problem in the Brussels bubble – with its risk of conflicts of interest and implication that officials and business interests have a shared culture – and it is clear that the permanent representations are not exempt from this," the report said.

Transparency is 'essential'

The report was published a day after another group, Transparency International, mapped the lack of transparency of the Eurogroup.

It also comes a day after Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok wrote in an FT op-ed the EU needed to increase transparency.

"Trust is the bedrock of any union, and is essential to the legitimacy of the EU," warned Blok.

"Greater overall transparency will make it easier to demonstrate the benefits that [EU] membership brings," he wrote, ahead of EU parliament elections in May.

Opinion

Hill's UBS move confirms EU's 'revolving door' problem

No surprise that in the last decade at least one third of top staff at the EU Commission's financial unit have either came from the financial industry or went there after their time at the commission.

Opinion

Why Brussels' toxic lobbying culture must end

What is revelatory about the study by Corporate Europe Observatory is the sheer number of embassies, committees and advisory groups that lobbyists can target: from the Council all the way down to standing committee on plants, animals, food and feed.

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