Saturday

15th Aug 2020

Ship Ahoy! Lobby firm buys up EU maritime officials

  • Ex-commissioner Joe Borg spies another maritime job after his time with the EU executive (Photo: 'Folk Songs for Little Sailors' album cover (1966))

Transparency campaigners are worried that a PR outfit that lobbies the EU on maritime issues has "bought up the top of the EU's maritime department lock, stock and barrel."

The alert comes as Malta's Joe Borg, the commissioner responsible for maritime affairs and fisheries until last year, gets set to start work with Fipra, a PR consultancy actively lobbying on maritime issues, whose main office is about 100 yards from the commission's headquarters in Brussels.

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On 11 June, the commission gave Mr Borg the green light to work at the firm, saying: "In view of the fact that Mr Borg's envisaged activity falls outside the scope of his portfolio during his time in office," it did not even need to convene its Ad Hoc Ethical Committee, a body which examines potential conflict of interest when commissioners leave the EU.

Mr Borg is to join his old colleague John Richardson, a former director in the European Commission's "Directorate General Mare," the EU's maritime and fisheries department, who in September 2008 became Fipra's "maritime policy and diplomacy special advisor."

During his time at the commission, Mr Richardson headed the task force that drafted the EU's 2007 Integrated Maritime Policy, which deals with competition, employment and environmental standards in the sector. He also headed up the Baltic Sea, North Sea and Landlocked Member State directorate. 

Corporate Europe Observatory, the EU transparency watchdog, has sharply criticised the developments, noting that Fipra has not even signed up to the commission's own lobbyist registry. 

"These two unacceptable revolving doors cases show that the commission's narrow interpretation makes the rules applying to former commissioners and commission staff totally irrelevant," the group's Erik Wesselius said. "Fipra appear to have bought up the top of the EU's maritime department lock, stock and barrel."

A total so far of six of the 13 EU commissioners who retired earlier this year have now gone on to work for banks, lobbying firms, insurance companies and airlines.

'Do you mind if we do?'

In the case of Mr Richardson, he told the EU executive that one of his potential Fipra clients would be Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, the world's second largest cruise firm. Despite this, commission spokesman Michael Mann told EUobserver that: "It was considered at that point in time that his envisaged activities would not be incompatible with his former functions."

"Should elements now come to light that would indicate that Mr Richardson would not have respected his obligations, this would be looked at by the relevant commission services," he added.

There is some confusion about when Mr Richardson actually left the commission. Formally, he quit on 1 August 2008. But at an event on 17 to 19 September in Kaunas, Lithuania - the Baltic Sea States Sub-regional Co-operation annual conference - he spoke at two workshops in his "EU Commission DG Maritime Affairs" capacity, according to the conference brochure. 

The crux of Messrs Borg and Richardsaon's defence is that their new activities do not overlap with their old commission jobs. 

Mr Borg, when notifying the commission of his new post, said he is "in principle not going to advise clients on matters related to his former commission portfolio." When contacted by EUobserver, Mr Richardson said: "The role I play is in advising companies on their dealings with governments. That's clearly in the public interest."

Fipra's chairman, Peter Lehrell, told this website: "Our one major maritime-related client is Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and I don't really think that's going to set the commission on fire." 

"Mr Borg will not be performing any tasks related to his past portfolio whatsoever, although I would like the right to go back to the commission and say: 'Do you mind if we do?'" he added. "He was Maltese foreign minister for a while ...I hired him because we don't have any representation there and I need a good man in Malta."

'Special affection' for Royal Caribbean

Fipra's own website and the activities of the two men in question indicate there is an intimate connection between their old and new roles, however. 

"Our staff are public affairs professionals with many years of experience of working with government and public institutions - and who in many cases have themselves served in the positions of those you are likely to be dealing with," Fipra's website boasts.

Mr Borg while still commissioner was already rubbing shoulders with Fipra people. He spoke at the company's annual conference on 7 May in Malta last year in praise of Europe's cruise industry.

"Europe's cultural heritage and artistic richness make Europe a natural cruise destination," he said. "The ingredients for solid growth in European cruises are there. We now need to make sure that this growth is realised."

Mr Borg and Mr Richardson were both at a commission maritime event on 18 to 20 May 2009 in Rome, where Mr Richardson spoke about the cruise industry. Messrs Borg and Richardson were also listed as speakers at the Biomarine forum in October 2008 in Marseilles, France. 

While Mr Lehrell downplayed the company's maritime activities, it has at least five other employees dealing with the sector: Hilary Hudson; Ukko Metsolo, a former senior advisor in the Prime Minister's Office in Finland; Jogi Humberto Oshiai, another former commission official; Mariella Palazzolo; and John Tzoannos, who was for six years until 2010 the secretary general of the Greek Ministry of the Mercantile Marine, with responsibility for the regulation of maritime affairs in Greece.

Regarding the importance of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines as a client Mr Lehrell says on Fipra's website that "he and his family have a special affection" for the company.

Mr Borg's old Maltese connections could certainly prove helpful in this area. Historically, cruise liners were predominantly flagged in the Caribbean, but in the last couple of years have shifted en masse to Europe. The Maltese maritime flag is now the second largest in Europe after Greece and the seventh largest worldwide.

Royal Caribbean for its part once registered many of its ships in Liberia to avoid European and US regulation, but has begun to register in Malta, notably ships from the company's Celebrity Cruises, Pullmantur, and Azamara Club Cruises subsidiaries, according to the maritime department of Transport Malta.

The company could do with some good PR, having long been the target of environmental campaigners for the levels of bacteria, pathogenic and heavy metal pollution emitted from its ships' waste streams.

In guilty pleas before US courts in the 1990s, Royal Caribbean admitted that engine rooms on its ships were rigged with secret piping used to let oily bilge bypass costly pollution-treatment machines and dump it overboard, which it did at night to avoid detection. Under pressure from campaigners, the company was forced to clean up its act.

All in the family

The manner of Mr Borg's recruitment also sheds light on his approach to the Fipra role. 

Fipra's Ukko Metsolo, who is married to Roberta Metsola Tedesco Triccas, a legal attache in the Maltese mission to the EU, indicated that Mr Borg used personal connections to fish for a job with the lobbying firm. 

"Joe Borg knew my family," Mr Metsolo explained. "And we'd met professionally a few times. There were multiple 'data points' between us, if you will ... He was really curious about Fipra. He wanted to find out more. So it happened that we met in Malta in April after Easter and then the chairman flew over for a lunch meeting. Then, a couple of months after, things moved forward and we realised the only way to proceed was to get the authorisation of the commission."

"I wouldn't say it was me who was instrumental in getting him," he said. "But getting my former boss, the ex-Finnish minister for agriculture and forestry, Kalevi Hemila. He was also the former CEO of the Confederation of Finnish Industries. That I can say was really my work."

"We've become something of a magnet for recently retired high-level officials, with multiple former ministers, MEPs and heads of competition authorities," he added.

Meanwhile, Mr Richardson's background as head of the commission's Baltic Sea team dovetails with Fipra's work on Baltic Sea regulatory issues, including the environment, ports, labour and visas, on behalf of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. 

During Mr Borg's speech at the Fipra annual conference on 7 May in Malta, the commissioner noted: "One might say that maritime policy is somewhat more closely related to the operational methods of Fripra [than EU fisheries policy]."

"Fipra and the European Commission have more in common than one might think," he said.

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