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26th Jan 2021

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Italian energy giant director advising EU foreign policy chief

  • Oil spill in the Niger delta. Eni is Africa's largest foreign producer of oil, and implicated in billion euro corruption allegations in Nigeria and in the Republic of the Congo (Photo: Sosialistisk Ungdom - SU)

A recently-appointed board member of Italy's largest energy giant, Eni, is special advisor to the EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.

Although the EU says there is no conflict of interests, the mix-up of internal procedures behind the appointment is likely an embarrassment for the European Commission.

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  • Eni's CEO Claudio Descalzi (l) with Nigeria's state minister for petroleum resources, Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu (Photo: ENI)

"I am a non-executive independent director in Eni since April 2020," said Nathalie Tocci, an Italian political scientist and honorary professor, in an email to EUobserver on Wednesday (25 November).

Tocci is one of four people not directly employed by the EU that gives Borrell advice on foreign policy.

She also sits on two Eni committees, chairing one.

According to Eni's own accounts, the combined committee positions pay out €100,000 a year while directors also get €80,000 gross.

Eni is Africa's largest foreign producer of oil, and implicated in billion euro corruption allegations in Nigeria and in the Republic of the Congo.

In April, the Italian government re-nominated Claudio Descalzi as the CEO of Eni - despite prosecutors in Italy seeking to put him in jail over the scandals.

With an office in Brussels, Eni spent up to €1,499,999 lobbying the EU last year alone.

Despite that background, Borrell's cabinet appears to have to failed to notify the European Commission's administration department of Tocci's new position on Eni's board.

It means the commission was unable to properly vet for possible conflicts and interests - which it is assigned to do.

And it was only after transparency campaigners filed a freedom of information request in July that the commission was even alerted.

The commission then sent Tocci an email demanding she update her declaration as special advisor, putting Borrell's cabinet in copy.

It had also asked Borrell's cabinet to update their "statement of assurance", which is meant to dispel any conflict of interest notions.

The updated version was completed over a weekend and dated 10 August by Borrell's head of cabinet, Pedro Serrano.

This came months after Tocci's new Eni role, and only after NGOs starting demanding answers.

Late, and not 'pro-active'

Among them was Myriam Douo at Friends of the Earth Europe, who had filed the freedom of information requests.

"The appointment of Nathalie Tocci, a member of Eni's board as an advisor to EU foreign affairs, is yet another example of vested oil-interests infiltrating the democratic process," Douo said.

She also says the affair points to weak European Commission oversight rules, noting that the conditions outlined in Serrano's "statement of assurance" are simply not enforceable.

Those conditions includes making sure Tocci does not lobby the EU institutions in fields linked to Eni's interest.

Tocci told EUobserver she won't and hasn't.

"I have never advised the HRVP [Borrell] on Nigeria or Congo, countries on which I have never worked," she said.

But her interests do include the eastern Mediterranean, a region where Turkey and Cyprus are fighting over gas.

Earlier this year she tweeted out a comment on the dispute - outraging Greece and provoking the European Commission to issue a statement distancing itself from her.

Today, she is working as Borrell's special advisor on the EU's global strategy, an area where energy is a key feature.

This latest revelation over procedures is likely to be an embarrassment for the European Commission.

The EU's administrative watchdog, the EUombudsman, told the commission in 2017 to be "more proactive" when dealing with possible conflicts of interests and special advisers.

The point was driven by the European Commission itself.

"The commission is under very close public scrutiny in this regard," wrote an EU commission official in charge of human resources, in an email addressed to Pedro Serrano over Tocci's appointment.

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