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21st Jan 2021

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Despite pledge, Katainen met lobbyists without taking notes

  • Jyrki Katainen said in February that someone from his cabinet 'always' takes notes when he is meeting lobbyists. That turns out not always to be the case. (Photo: European Commission)

The vice-president of the European Commission in charge of jobs, Jyrki Katainen, held seven meetings with lobbyists without anyone in his cabinet recording what was said – despite previous assurances to EUobserver that at such encounters a cabinet member "always" takes notes.

The lack of any written records of the meetings came to light after this website filed an access to documents request, asking for "all documents (…) including but not limited to minutes, (hand-written) notes, audio recordings, verbatim reports, emails, and presentations" related to seven meetings with lobbyists on artificial intelligence (AI).

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In its reply, the commission identified several documents, mostly email exchanges.

Except for a 56-word document which summarised a meeting with the RELX Group, the commission did not identify minutes or notes for a single one of the seven meetings.

The lack of minutes contradicts a statement made by Katainen in February, when this website interviewed him about a meeting he had with Jose Manuel Barroso.

Barroso previously was president of the European Commission, and received widespread criticism for his decision to then take a controversial job at US investment bank Goldman Sachs.

After it had emerged that Katainen had not produced any minutes or notes about that meeting, the Finnish commissioner explained why not: he and Barroso were friends.

"When I have a private beer with friends, I don't take notes what my friend is saying to me," said Katainen.

"But if somebody is lobbying to me, then of course there is somebody from the cabinet always who is taking notes," he said.

Five of these seven meetings, for which no notes or minutes appeared to exist, took place after Katainen's interview with EUobserver.

This website sent a commission's spokeswoman several questions by email, including why no one from Katainen's cabinet took notes; whether not having minutes was an exception or common; and how the practice squared with Katainen's remarks.

A commission spokeswoman gave only a general response, saying that the subjects of the meetings had been published on the vice-president's website – which is true, but is unrelated to the questions asked.

"Generally speaking in the commission, we want to strike the right balance between informing the public about the engagements of politicians and the need to be able to discuss with interlocutors without making everything public so that ideas and initiatives can be developed before they are presented to the public," she said.

The spokeswoman also said that Katainen "has been accompanied on these meetings by a member of his cabinet who has been able to ensure adequate follow-up, if necessary", but did not respond to a follow-up question how these cabinet members do so without writing anything down.

'Not uncommon'

One of the meetings was between Katainen and the RELX Group, on 10 July.

A spokeswoman for the British multinational, specialised in data analytics, told EUobserver that the discussion was a general one, and that the company gave some examples of how it was investing in advanced data science techniques.

"We did not notice whether any notes were taken or not on this occasion," she said.

"In our experience it is not uncommon at high-level meetings for there not to be a written record," she added.

A spokeswoman from Investor AB, another company which Katainen met, confirmed the meeting, but would not comment on whether the commission took notes.

A similar comment came from the Sanoma Corporation.

"I am not aware of any notes from the meeting nor am I familiar with customary meeting procedures in this perspective," said a spokesman.

It is unclear to what extent EU commissioners fail to keep track of their meetings with lobbyists – some of them have met hundreds of lobbyists since taking office in November 2014 – but in recent months EUobserver has found several pieces of anecdotal evidence.

European Commissioners Guenther Oettinger and Miguel Arias Canete met with German carmaker Daimler for example, without leaving any paper trail.

Even commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has held lobby meetings this year for which no written record of what was said, exists.

While this is not against the commission's own transparency rules, it does raise questions about the functioning of the EU's executive.

Contrast with colleague

EUobserver also requested documents related to ten meetings on AI held by Katainen's colleague Andrus Ansip, who is in charge of the Digital Single Market project.

There were minutes for five of those encounters, including with Microsoft and Cisco.

The minutes showed that the CEO of AI company Arago had proposed several measures to Ansip, including a request for the EU to introduce "legislation that allows machines to make independent decisions".

Knowing what ideas lobbyists propose to EU commissioners is highly relevant, as the EU is currently working on a coordinated AI strategy for Europe.

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