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26th Sep 2020

Investigation

France opposed guidelines on EU presidency sponsorships

  • The European Parliament has said it regretted it had become common practice for member states holding the presidency to cover expenses through commercial sponsorships (Photo: looking4poetry)

France, Spain, and the Czech Republic refused to endorse a draft letter from the Council of the EU to the European Ombudsman on the controversial issue of sponsored council presidencies, a confidential document in possession of EUobserver revealed.

The episode highlighted the sensitivity of the issue, which touches on member state sovereignty.

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The council of the EU is the EU institution representing member state governments. Every six months a different country holds the council presidency. Currently it is Croatia, with Germany to follow in the second half of 2020.

In recent years, it has become common for governments to accept money or contributions in kind from corporations to help cover the costs of organising presidency events.

The council letter is a response to an investigation by the Ombudsman into this practice.

In the letter, the secretary-general of the council said that the council would look at the possibility of setting up a "best practice guidance" paper - to suggest measures member states can take to prevent sponsorships damaging the reputation of the EU.

According to an internal council document leaked to EUobserver, not all 27 EU member states could support that commitment at a working party meeting of the council.

In a statement, the French delegation stressed the part of the draft letter where it is set out that the council "cannot take responsibility for organising activities which are beyond the limits of the powers conferred on it by the Treaties".

"In this context, we doubt that the general secretariat of the council, or the council itself, is justified in setting guidelines concerning activities which do not fall within the framework provided for in the treaties or in the council's rules of procedure," said the French statement.

"In particular, we wonder whether it is not solely for the member state holding the presidency to ensure, under its own responsibility and in the interests of the European Union, that commercial sponsorship of events of this kind presents no reputational risks to the council or to the European Union," it continued.

Spain said it supported "the entire text of the response to the ombudsman, except for the section in which the preparation of guidelines is proposed."

The Czech Republic noted that such guidance could in principle "be beneficial and bring an added value", but said that the letter should have clearly stated the "non-binding nature of such [a] document".

France, Spain, and the Czech Republic voted against the draft letter, the final version of which was published by the ombudsman on 6 May (the wording of the final letter is identical to the draft letter).

Portugal voted in favour, but wished to clarify "that this future guidance note cannot have a binding nature".

Portugal will follow Germany as council president on 1 January 2021. France and the Czech Republic will hold the presidency during the first and second half of 2022, respectively.

Despite the reservations by some member states, the letter was already cautiously worded, saying that the council would only "explore the possibility of providing best practice guidance so that the member states holding future presidencies are aware of such a risk when assessing the possible recourse to sponsorship".

Self-promotion?

It also stressed that "member states would keep final responsibility" and highlighted a distinction between two different types of activities a council president typically organises.

One category contains the presidency responsibilities that deal with lawmaking, like negotiating with other EU institutions on political compromises.

Activities in that category are fully funded from the council budget.

Another category are informal meetings held in the member states and "activities such as cultural, touristic and scientific events". Such events fall under the responsibility of the individual member states, the council letter said.

These events are often part of an effort by member states to promote themselves. However, the ombudsman was concerned that if they are financed by corporate sponsors, this may reflect badly on the entire EU.

Loss of trust

The European Parliament too expressed its concern, in a (non-binding) resolution last October.

The parliament said it regretted it had become common practice for member states holding the presidency to cover expenses through commercial sponsorships.

It said it was "highly concerned about the possible reputational damage and the risk of loss of trust that this practice may incur on the [European] Union, its institutions and especially to the council in the eyes of the citizens of the Union".

MEPs suggested that the council "adopt guidelines in order to promote the financial transparency and independency of the presidencies" and "strongly recommends the council to envisage budgetisation of the presidencies".

Author bio

Peter Teffer is a freelance investigative journalist who was part of the EUobserver reporting team from 2014 to 2019.

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