Monday

6th Apr 2020

Investigation

US billionaires funding EU culture war

  • Close-up of US dollar bill (Photo: Alejandro Mallea)

The number of faith-based conservative EU lobbyists in Brussels is growing and the Roman Catholic Church is itself a big spender.

But US billionaires, some of whom are friends of American president Donald Trump, are also paying anti-abortion groups in Europe tens of millions of dollars to influence policy and law.

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  • Roman Catholic Church spends over €1m a year (Photo: Mark & Becs)

The US groups have not scored any big wins yet.

But they are acting in concert and they are just getting started, European MPs who work on sexual and reproductive health have warned.

And the culture war is broader, with women's rights, LGBTI rights, embryonic research, and euthanasia also involved in the clash of values.

Brussels bubble

Some 21 religious think-tanks, NGOs, and other entities currently spend €2.1m to €3.1m a year lobbying the European Parliament and European Commission on these fronts, according to the EU transparency register.

Most of them come from Austria, Belgium, France, Poland, Spain, or Switzerland.

But the Vatican is the biggest individual spender.

The Roman Catholic Church's ambassador, or nuncio, in Belgium sometimes meets EU officials.

Its other unit, the Commission of the Episcopates of the European Union (Comece), created in Brussels in 1980, also spends €1.25m a year on trying to influence EU institutions.

Comece believes "each human person must be protected from conception until natural death".

Its task was "not lobbying" but rather "advocating" a Catholic point of view on EU affairs, its spokesman, Alessandro Di Maio, said.

It did not work on abortion or euthanasia at EU level because these were matters of national law outside its remit, he said.

"Since abortion and euthanasia fall under the competence of EU member states, the dialogue between Comece and the European institutions does not include them," Di Maio explained.

But Comece has, in recent times, co-organised a legal seminar in the EU capital entitled "Preventing Abortion in Europe".

It has said EU aid for developing countries should not be used to finance abortions.

And it said the European Commission ought to consider a ban on EU funds for scientific projects that involved embryo destruction.

The Swiss-based International Organisation for the Right to Education and Freedom of Education (OIDEL), another big EU spender on €200,000 to €300,000 a year, calls itself an advocate of pure learning.

But it has close links with hardline European and US anti-abortion groups despite its liberal name.

One of Us, an anti-abortion umbrella group with 48 members from 19 EU states, spends €100,000 to €200,000 a year in Brussels.

Its task was "defence of life from conception until natural death", Ana del Pino, its executive director, said.

"Our goal is to continue presenting a real alternative for Europe, faithful to human dignity and protection of human life, as should be done by an advanced society," she said.

The Federation of Catholic Family Associations in Europe (FAFCE) spends €50,000 to €100,000 on EU lobbying.

"We believe that care of family ought to be a central issue of EU policies and that the current individualistic approach is, in fact, contradictory with people's aspirations and the reality of their daily lives," it said in a statement.

Ordo Iuris, a Polish-based think tank, spends €25,000 to €50,000.

Its mission was "protection of human life from conception until natural death" and "protection of the identity of marriage and family" it said.

Jeden Z Nas, another Polish NGO which spends the same, said it was trying to stop Europe from "imposing any anti-life, anti-family law onto member states".

Most of the EU-registered lobbyists declined to answer questions on the nature of their activities.

The silent ones included Alliance Vita, Asociacion Enraizados, Europe for Family, European Dignity Watch, European Institute of Bioethics, Femina Europa, Fondation Jerome Lejeune, Open Doors International, Professionals for Ethics, the Transatlantic Christian Council, and YouthProAktiv.

Some of them, such as France's Fondation Jerome Lejeune, declared budgets of just €10,000.

Others, such as the Brussels-based European Institute of Bioethics, also shelled out over €100,000 last year.

Estimated costs of EU spending by conservative groups (Photo: Interrobang/Razvan Zamfira)

US flows

The EU transparency register reveals just the tip of an iceberg in wider Europe, however.

An analysis of hundreds of US tax returns also shows that six-US based conservative groups spent at least $19.4m (€17.2m) on wider European lobbying between 2012 and 2017.

The groups collected $429m from US donors in the same period, some of it from conservative billionaires with close links to Trump.

They include: the World Youth Alliance (WYA); the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF); the Acton Institute; the American Centre for Law and Justice (ACLJ); Human Life International; and Heartbeat International.

The New York-based WYA passed $644,000 to its EU affiliates between 2012 and 2017.

During the same period it got $1.86m from the Chiaroscuro Foundation of Sean Fieler, a Catholic billionaire who advised Trump on his 2016 election campaign. It also got $571,000 from another conservative group, the John Templeton Foundation.

The WYA's office in Brussels has three accredited lobbyists who spent €45,000 last year and who organised a conference on "Good Governance" at the EU parliament in July this year.

It also has branches in Austria and Croatia.

It claims to have 300,000 grassroots members worldwide. In order to join, people must sign an online charter which says: "We are convinced that the intrinsic dignity possessed by every human being from conception to natural death is the foundation of everyone's right to life".

That is not EU policy.

But it did not stop the EU from giving the WYA €63,000 in grants under the so-called 'Erasmus' education programme in recent years.

For its part, the Arizona-based ADF funnelled $8.4m to its European affiliates over the past five years.

It got its funding, some $228m, partly from the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation and the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation.

The DeVos family has close links to Trump - its Betsy DeVos is Trump's education secretary.

The Prince family also has Trump links and a controversial past.

Erik Prince, the foundation's chairman is Betsy DeVos' brother. He is also the founder of former US security firm Blackwater, which gunned down 37 Iraqi civilians in 2007.

ADF has its European HQ in Vienna and subsidiaries in Brussels, London, Strasbourg, and Geneva.

Its Brussels unit alone spends €200,000 to €300,000 a year.

Its literature says it "advocates for the right to life of the unborn before the world's most powerful institutions".

"Over the past 24 years, a surging pro-life movement has forced the closure of 75 percent of surgical abortion businesses in America … but over 500 abortion facilities still exist. There's more work to be done," it also says, in an insight into its European agenda.

The Michigan-based Acton Institute transferred $1.1m to its European network and got $58m in US donations in the 2012 to 2017 period.

It also got funds from the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation and from another conservative billionaire, Charles G. Koch.

The ACLJ, based in Washington, transferred $7.5m to Europe, most of it to the European Centre of Law and Justice (ECLJ) in Rome, which files cases on the "the dignity of the person" at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and other tribunals.

The ACJL got $111m in US donations between 2012 and 2017. It was created by a TV evangelist, Pat Robertson, in 1990, while its European branch was co-founded by Jay Sekulow, a former Trump lawyer.

Human Life International, based in Virginia, is a grassroots missionary group with over 100 affiliates around the world.

It collected $17.1m from US donors and spent $1.5m in 15 European countries in the five years in question.

The Ohio-based Heartbeat International aims "to make abortion unwanted today and unthinkable for future generations".

It collected $15.2m in the US and spent $190,000 in Europe.

Flows of US funds to European activities (Photo: Interrobang/Razvan Zamfira)

Acting together

The groups are linked not just by their views and their donors, but sometimes act in concert on the EU stage.

Some have taken part in events organised by Agenda Europe, which calls itself "an informal network" of "individuals, NGOs, and experts" and which holds annual summits.

Agenda Europe was a "secure, closed network of pro-family, pro-life, pro-freedom allies", Sophia Kuby, one of the ADF's EU lobbyists, and the daughter of a right-wing German writer, said in her presentation at its 2014 event.

Another way to describe Agenda Europe would be "a loose network of mainly civil society associations, representatives of the Catholic church, other churches, Catholic academics and politicians, who network, discuss, and strategise on how to advance a religious world view inside Europe, nationally and in European institutions".

That was according to Neil Datta, the secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population & Development (EPFPD), a Brussels-based nonprofit which represents MPs from around Europe who work on sexual and reproductive health.

Agenda Europe was against abortion, some forms of contraception, liberal sexual education, and favoured heterosexual and patriarchal families, Datta said.

"For them, their rights as religious individuals are higher than national secular laws," he said.

Other examples of the US-linked groups' work include the ECLJ's recent intervention in a French case on euthanasia.

The parents of Frenchman Vincent Lambert, a 42-year old quadriplegic on life-support, wanted doctors to keep him going and one of their lawyers was connected to the ECLJ, which acts as an amicus curiae in many courts.

On another occasion, ADF supported a Swedish midwife who refused to perform abortions.

It also lobbied MEPs to support Christians in the Middle East and later welcomed an EU decision to create a "special representative for freedom of religion" in 2016, a post filled by conservative Slovak politician Jan Figel.

"This new envoy will ... start a new chapter in which the EU takes its human rights obligations more seriously," ADF's Kuby said at the time.

The native EU groups work on similar issues as their American cousins.

The Brussels-based FAFCE, for instance, once tried to create an outcry that Swedish doctors were not allowed to refuse abortions.

EU-based groups helped to quash a non-binding report by a centre-left Portuguese MEP, Edite Estrela, which said every European citizen had "the right" to make "their own informed and responsible choices on their sexual and reproductive life".

Poland's Ordo Iuris also helped to draw up a national bill granting full human rights to the foetus and outlawing abortion except when the mother's life was in danger.

Growing force

The bill did not pass in the end.

The EU capital also plays host to more liberal groups, which lobby on the other side of the ideological barricades.

Datta's EPFPD, which publishes critical reviews of Agenda Europe's work, spends a sizeable €200,000 to €300,000 a year in Brussels.

The International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network, a liberal group which receives US funds also spent a hefty €100,000 to €199,999 in 2017.

For Datta, the EU-native faith groups and the US-linked ones have had limited success in Brussels in some of their core areas.

"In sexual and reproductive health, they have not been effective and that is because progressive groups and politicians have been able to neutralise them," he said.

But the number of conservative lobbyists in the EU capital was growing, he added.

There were just two or three such groups 20 years ago, Datta said.

Faith-based lobbyists were now being "treated with credibility" by MEPs and EU officials and were "able to influence certain narratives and messages", he said.

They might not have scored big wins yet, but some of them were first trying to build a base, before going on the offensive later down the line, he also warned.

"A number of groups are new on the EU scene, so they don't yet have policy successes or advances," he said.

"They have only been around for three or four years. First they arrive, they establish an office in Brussels, start making contacts, and advancing their own points of view and gradually build up. They haven't had many policy successes, because they haven't tried yet," Datta said.

Author bio

Michael Bird writes for The Black Sea new website and is the co-author of previous pieces in this series, such as Why 60 Romanian hospitals are refusing abortions.

Blaz Zgaga is a Slovenian investigative journalist and co-author of the book "In the Name of the State", on weapons smuggling in the Balkans in the 1990s. He now works with Nacional, a weekly magazine in Croatia, and on European Investigative Collaborations projects.

With additional reporting by Manuel Rico and Angel Munarriz (Infolibre) and Roeland Termote and Stijn Cools (De Standaard).

This story was made possible with support from the Journalism Fund.

An earlier version of the article was published by Nacional.

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