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26th Oct 2020

Investigation

Saudis paying College of Europe to lobby MEPs

  • The College of Europe has some 13,000 alumni (Photo: EUobserver)

A prestigious EU-funded post-graduate institute, known as the College of Europe, is being paid by the Saudi government to set up private meetings between Saudi ambassadors, EU officials, and MEPs.

The Bruges-based institute counts politicians, former prime ministers, and top-ranking EU officials as alumni and boasts of its wide network as an appeal to future students.

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A leaked email to an MEP from the institute, seen by EUobserver, says they "are organising a visit to the European institutions for seven Saudi ambassadors and seven high-level officials from the Saudi government".

The visit is set for 18 to 22 February and will include meeting College of Europe graduates who now work at the EU institutions.

The College of Europe says some of the MEPs that they reached out to have accepted their offer, thus allowing the Saudi ambassadors to Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania to enter the European Parliament on 19 February.

Although EU lobby transparency rules says academic institutions should register if they "deal with EU activities and policies and are in touch with the EU institutions", the College of Europe is not listed in the EU joint-transparency register.

Exceptions may apply if such visits by educational institutes are for a purely academic exercise. But the leaked email makes no mention that the visit is academic.

Instead, it says the proposed meetings would enable the Saudis and the MEPs "to discuss current issues in the relations between the EU and the Saudi government."

Green MEPs have now demanded accountability.

On Monday (11 February), in a resolution, they denounced the lobbying, noting they are "disturbed by the facilitation of lobbying meetings for Saudi officials with EU institutions by academic institutions, among them the College of Europe."

The private meetings come less than four months after the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and a broader public relations campaign to beef up Saudi's tainted image around the world.

It also follows recent revelations of how the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia lobbies the EU via a consultancy firm, MSL Brussels.

Those efforts sought to deflect attention from the kingdom of its brutal conduct in the war in Yemen, promote the popularity of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, and present Saudi Arabia as a key ally for the West.

But Jesus Ballesteros, the director of the Bruge-based College of Europe, told EUobserver that the Saudi visit is part of the institute's mission to support good relations between the EU and its international partners.

"Whether we like it or not, Saudi Arabia is a main international partner of the EU as well as Russia, as well as China, as well as the United States, as well as many others," he said.

He insisted the meetings are part of a wider dialogue to discuss topics that will also cover human rights and that the post-graduate institute is not making any profit out of the arrangement.

"I think these are private. I have not discussed this, in principle, it is information for them [Saudis], so yes I guess private," he said of the planned meetings.

Asked if the College of Europe is getting paid by the Saudis to cover the costs, Ballesteros said "yes - as the College will obviously not use own budgetary resources for funding a Saudi information visit."

He also says the institute does not receive private donations from the Saudi government.

Asked whether the Saudi's are responsible for Khashoggi's death, Ballesteros said he was unable to comment in either a personal or professional capacity.

The College of Europe's work is not limited to Saudi Arabia. It has also designed master's programme for Russian officials in Russia and is teaching Chinese officials in China about EU competition law.

But Ballesteros says the high level meeting with Saudis in Brussels is a first for the institute.

"At this level, it is the very first time we are organising an information visit like this," he said.

For its part, the Saudi mission to the European Union has confirmed the visit but has yet to respond to questions on why it is using the College of Europe to set up the meetings, rather than merely writing to the MEPs or institutions directly.

This story was updated on 13 February 2019 at 17:05 to include a quote from Ballesteros on the Saudi's paying the College of Europe to cover costs.

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