Wednesday

20th Oct 2021

Green light for ex-commissioner's lover to join his new lobby firm

  • Guenter Verheugen: Now offering 'The European Experience' (Photo: European Commission)

The European Commission has given the green light to Petra Erler, the companion and chief of staff to former industry commissioner Guenter Verheugen, to join him in his new lobbying outfit.

In 2007, Mr Verheugen came under fire for promoting Ms Erler, the lover of the then still-married commissioner, to the position of head of cabinet. Two months after leaving the employ of the EU executive, Mr Verheugen set up his own lobbying firm, calling it 'The European Experience' and brought his partner with him.

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The commission has until now maintained that its human resources department was still looking into whether this case of 'revolving doors' will be allowed.

The EU executive had promised transparency campaigners that it would notify them as soon as a decision had been taken on both individuals.

However, EUobserver has learnt that the commission quietly endorsed Ms Erler's move back in October. In a letter sent to Friends of the Earth this week, the commission apologises for not giving notice of the decision.

The commission said it was "pleased to authorise" the new job so long as she does not engage in lobbying individuals from the commission's Directorate General Enterprise - the department overseen by Mr Verheugen - or her former colleagues who worked in Mr Verheugen's cabinet.

She must also not advise any companies that had been subject to any decisions taken by Mr Verheugen.

All other lobbying activities would be allowed though.

The company's website says that it will "not engage in any kind of lobbying activity." However, it offers "intensive management seminars for institutions and enterprises" with experts from European institutions. It also offers "analytical background papers and strategy recommendations" on EU policy.

Transparency campaigners say that this sort of activity would be defined as lobbying.

They are also critical of the commission's narrowness of scope for ethical concerns.

"DG Enterprise is such an all-encompassing DG. She would have a great deal of insider knowledge and contacts from many other departments," Friends of the Earth's Paul de Clerck told EUobserver.

The green light given to Ms Erler, he says, would allow, for example the European Experience firm to advise and lobby DG Environment on behalf of BASF, the German chemicals firm, over issues related to the EU's Reach rules governing chemicals approval, "even though DG Enterprise was heavily involved [in the development of the Reach legislation."

"It's amazing," said Mr de Clerck. "It's just so blatant. The commission doesn't seem to even pretend to be putting in much effort to putting the brakes on revolving doors scandals."

The commission has not yet reached a decision on Mr Verheugen himself, some four months after the press broke the story of the ex-commissioner's new firm.

Some seven commissioners from the former European Commission have joined private firms, although not all of them are seen as problematic by transparency lobbyists.

Among those seen as crossing the line are Austria's Benita Ferrero Waldner, formerly in charge of external relations, who is now working for insurance company Munich Re and fisheries ex-commissioner Joe Borg, from Malta, who had taken a position with Fipra, a PR consultancy actively lobbying on maritime issues.

Mr Veheugen himself has already secured executive jobs with Raiffeisen Bank, the Royal Bank of Scotland, US lobbying consultancy Fleishman-Hillard and the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey.

The EU executive for its part said that the restrictions imposed on Ms Erler are "stricter than what happens in most national administrations" but that she is "entitled to exercise a professional activity after leaving the commission. She is entitled to use the experience gained in the commission."

"Commission staff in general are sufficiently competent to have professional discussions with stakeholders from all sides, national administrations, third county representatives, industry, trade unions, NGOs and so on. It is part of the job which a public administration has to fulfill. Administration and government cannot work in an ivory tower."

"We understand the concern of some of the Brussels based NGOs, but their positions do not give sufficient consideration to the fundamental individual rights and the professional realities any administration has to work in."

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