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25th Jul 2021

Investigation

EU college defends Saudi-style visits, attacks 'sloppy' media

College of Europe rector Jorg Monar has confirmed payments from Saudi Arabia to set up private meetings with MEPs - and attacked the media for reporting it as lobbying.

In a letter addressed to the chair of the European Parliament's budgetary control committee and seen by this website, Monar says that "the Saudi government has been charged for the training provided in line with our usual tariffs."

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In his letter, dated 21 February, he also described media that reported the paid Saudi training seminar as a lobbying exercise as "sloppily researched and tendentious."

The training included non-public meetings between seven Saudi ambassadors to EU states and officials from the EU institutions between 18 and 22 February.

The MEP briefing, which was also held behind closed doors, took place at the European Parliament on 19 February.

The 19 February meeting was chaired by France's former defence minister, centre-right MEP Michele Alliot-Marie.

Monar says their fees for the Saudi training is in no way linked to the education branch of the EU-funded post-graduate institute

His letter is a response to budget control committee chair, German centre-right MEP Ingeborg Graessle.

Graessle had last week demanded clarity from Monar on the Saudi financial ties, following revelations by this website that the College of Europe was being paid by the Saudi government for their efforts.

"The article informs that most likely your institution has received financial support from the Saudi side for your activity. This is clearly a type of action, which characterises a lobbyist organisation,"she told Monar.

Monar appears to have now confirmed such financial support, but draws a distinction between the College of Europe's executive-training programme and its higher education division.

"Our executive-training branch operates entirely on a self-financing basis, in full respect of the College's non-profit organisation status," he says.

Saudi fees a 'surplus'

The rector makes similar assertions in a second letter addressed to the alumni of the College of Europe, noting that the Saudi fees "have generated a surplus which will barely cover the replacement costs of a beamer in a College seminar room."

Some 125 alumni working at the European Parliament had signed and sent him a letter demanding that Monar cut all ties with the Saudis.

Monar, in a response letter to the alumni sent earlier this week and also seen by EUobserver, says the meetings at the EU institutions had been initiated "well before the Khashoggi incident."

Jamal Khashoggi was a Saudi journalist who was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October, before being dismembered and dissolved in acid.

The College of Europe last year organised information sessions for groups of officials from 65 different countries, many from autocratic regimes.

The EU's lobby transparency rules require academic institutions to register if they "deal with EU activities and policies and are in touch with the EU institutions".

The College of Europe is not listed in the EU joint-transparency register. The Bruges-based campus, where Monar presides, received over €5m in EU funds for 2019.

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