Thursday

13th May 2021

Former EU top diplomat becomes security lobbyist

  • Catherine Ashton was the EU's first high-representative for foreign affairs, from 2010 to November 2014 (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Europe's first-ever foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, recently took a job with private military firm GardaWorld, which bids for EU contracts.

A second senior EU official has also joined the Canadian firm, as its British competitor, G4S, faces uncertainty over Brexit.

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  • British firms protect EU embassies in Afghanistan and beyond (Photo: ussocom_ru)

Ashton, a 63-year old baroness who now sits in the UK's House of Lords, became the "member" of an "advisory group" at GardaWorld Security in September, according to her parliamentary declaration.

The new job came five years after she stepped down as the EU's high representative for foreign affairs in November 2014.

Former EU officials often go to work for industry in what is dubbed "revolving doors" by NGOs, who say it harms Europe's image.

When US investment bank, Goldman Sachs, hired Ashton's ex-boss, former European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, in 2016 it caused a furore on incestuous lobbying.

Ashton, when contacted by EUobserver, declined to say what she was doing for GardaWorld or how much she was paid.

The Canadian firm said "due to the nature of our work, and our contractual obligations, we do not disclose information regarding specific contracts or personnel beyond what may be publicly available".

And the EU foreign service declined to say if her decision was above board.

But GardaWorld also hired the EU foreign service's former director of civilian missions, Kenneth Deane, in April, less than one year after he stepped down, in what looked like a concerted lobbying campaign.

"Ashton would no longer be covered by any [EU] code of conduct, as she left in 2014. But there should have been an authorisation request and an assessment done in the case of Deane," Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), a pro-transparency NGO in Brussels, told this website.

And even if both of them had done nothing wrong on paper, these kind of moves, which happened frequently, "raised public concern", it added.

"Beyond technical rules, we need to change the culture so that revolving doors are no longer part of normal, day-to-day Brussels bubble life," the NGO said.

"It is urgent to reform the ethics system," it said.

GardaWorld currently protects an EU delegation in Haiti, the EU foreign service noted.

It was "proud to serve the EU in different capacities in past years and looks forward to continuing to do so," the company's press office in Montreal said.

But its EU record was not quite flawless.

Olaf, the EU's anti-fraud office, concluded a report on "possible irregularities concerning a contract for an EU compound in Somalia" in 2018 and police raided GardaWorld's office in Brussels in April this year in connection with the case.

National "judicial investigations are ongoing," into the affair, Olaf told EUobserver.

The anti-fraud office also investigated misconduct allegations against Deane before he left his EU post in June 2018, but GardaWorld declined to say if that might harm his value.

EU men with guns

EU institutions spend hundreds of millions of euros a year on protection of foreign buildings and staff.

And GardaWorld's competitor, G4S, the largest private security firm in the world, has won several contracts in the past.

The British company defends EU embassies in Bolivia, Botswana, Djibouti, Gabon, Gambia, Indonesia, Madagascar, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, and South Africa, as well as a training mission in Ukraine. And it protects EU commission buildings in Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, Malta, and Slovenia.

Two small UK firms, Page Protective Services and Saladin Security, have also done well, with Page winning big contracts in Afghanistan.

For its part, G4S tends to operate via local subsidiaries in the EU and beyond.

That is meant to make it Brexit-proof, as UK companies worry about the potential impact of Britain's EU departure, which falls due on Thursday (31 October).

But EU calls for tender now contain a Brexit clause on "eligibility", which says UK candidates could be rejected.

"After the UK's withdrawal from the EU, the rules of access to EU procurement procedures of economic operators established in third countries will apply to candidates or tenderers from the UK depending on the outcome of the negotiations," the clause says.

"In case such access is not provided by legal provisions in force, candidates or tenderers from the UK could be rejected from the procurement procedure," it adds.

If there was a no-deal Brexit, that would mean there were no "legal provisions in force" on eligibility of British firms.

And the right to bear arms in exotic jurisdictions is covered by even more complex licensing regimes.

Brexit limbo

It remains to be seen if Ashton or Deane will help GardaWorld boost its EU portfolio.

But the Canadian firm signalled grand ambitions earlier this year, when it offered to buy G4S for €3.5bn, even though the deal later came to nothing.

For their part, EU sources said the Brexit clause neither guaranteed nor undermined British firms' future eligibility.

It provided answers only "as far as it is possible" and could be seen "both ways", sources told EUobserver, adding that each new tender would be treated on a case-by-case basis.

But another source, who used to work in the EU private military sector, said "they [UK firms] are afraid of losing everything in Brussels".

And a G4S spokesperson said "we work closely with all our customers on the potential impact of changes to legislation," as the Brexit deadline, with no deal yet in place, approached.

EU men with guns: A comedy of errors

The EU foreign service just did a U-turn on a €50mn tender for bodyguards in Kabul, with leaked documents posing questions how a British firm with a frightening track record won it in the first place.

Analysis

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Ashton's defenders say she created Europe's foreign service and clinched the Iran and Kosovo-Serbia accords. But in fact she played a minor role in all three, posing the question: How should we remember the EU's first foreign policy chief?

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European Parliament president David Sassoli called for the Conference on the Future of Europe "to start as soon as possible". Meanwhile, nearly half of EU citizens would like to see reforms to the bloc.

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