10th Dec 2023


'Qatargate' is the tip of the iceberg

  • We are calling on EU institutions to implement long overdue reforms: a mandatory registration of meetings between all MEPs and lobbyists; a firewall for lobbies in repressive regimes; a reform of the current lobby register to make it legally binding. (Photo: Matthew Tempest)
Listen to article

'Qatargate' is just the tip of the iceberg: the EU has been lobbied by repressive regimes for decades

To the average person, Qatargate is shocking: the idea that elected officials would take actual bribes from one of the most repressive regimes in the world, in exchange for playing down serious human rights violations?

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

But to those of us who have been working for years to cast a light on EU corruption, this latest scandal is not a shock, or even a surprise; it's just the tip of the iceberg.

It is the product of years of neglect by European officials when it comes to the lobbying practices of repressive regimes. At Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) we work to expose these practices but we also go further than just demanding transparency: time and time again we have denounced the serious inadequacies of the rules which govern lobbying of European politicians and institutions.

For decades, repressive regimes have been both approaching politicians and officials directly in an attempt to influence policy, including with gifts and bribes.

And they have also been subcontracting their diplomacy to PR companies, lobbyists and pressure groups, and big business.

The lobbyists' job often includes whitewashing the bloody reputations of dictators, promoting lucrative trade and investment deals with totalitarian states, pushing back against sanctions, or smearing dissidents.

Whether they lobby the EU institutions or capital cities, they usually work in the shadows without real fear of sanction, since the EU Transparency Register is not legally binding.

Compare this to the US — where the United States' Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), requires all lobbyists working for any foreign government to be registered, to publish contracts, and legal sanctions apply to those who do not — and one can begin to understand the scale of the problem the EU has.

In 2015 we published a report on the European PR firms who were whitewashing brutal regimes. It includes 18 case studies of PR firms and consultants working in Europe for dubious regimes accused of war crimes and human rights violations.

In particular, the report shows that in 2014, Qatar surpassed Russia as the biggest client of the lobbying firm Portland Communications, which was implicated by public broadcaster Channel 4 for practicing so-called "astroturfing" — a technique of faking a spontaneous popular movement, in this case, of football fans supposed support Doha's bid for the World Cup.

Between 2012 and 2014 the Azerbaijani regime funnelled billions of dollars through offshore companies to pay bribes, including to those involved in the Italy-Azerbaijan mega pipeline, the so-called 'southern gas corridor'.

European officials then participated in whitewashing the image of a repressive regime by minimising electoral fraud and gross human rights violations. Sound familiar?

And then there's the lobbying for the Kremlin, its rich friends, and Russian companies like Gazprom, which has been going on in Brussels for years. When president Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, 20 percent of European gas imports came from Russia. This figure rose to 40 percent by early 2022, thanks to Western fossil fuel companies. The invasion of Ukraine exposed the continent's dependence on Russian oil and gas, the import of which directly funds Putin's war effort.

Still under the direct influence of fossil-fuel companies, the EU now wants to replace Russian fossil fuels by doubling gas imports from other repressive regimes like Qatar and Azerbaijan.

The import of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from Qatar is mentioned twice in the European Commission's REPowerEU plan to get rid of Russian gas, a plan driven by the same fossil fuel companies that continue to keep us dependent on repressive regimes.

German energy company RWE recently signed a deal to source two million tonnes of LNG a year from Qatar from 2026, with the support of the German government.

At Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), we are calling on EU institutions to implement long overdue reforms: a mandatory registration of meetings between all MEPs and lobbyists; a firewall for lobbies in repressive regimes; a reform of the current lobby register to make it legally binding.

In addition, the rules governing the current exemption of certain categories of lobbyists from the 'bad regimes' should be strengthened in order to protect the European decision-making process from such interference.

There must be a body in the institution which is given the necessary powers to proactively monitor and investigate violations of these strict rules.

And there needs to be a crackdown on the revolving door policy (the phenomenon of rotating staff between the office of legislator and positions in the industry affected by legislation) and the financing of political parties by authoritarian governments.

Finally, we need to make public the ownership of companies and assets, so that we can track down dirty money in the EU and around the world.

European politicians who have just scored an own goal with this scandal would do well to invest in fair and ethical politics.

Author bio

Lucy Hall and Hans Van Scharen are researchers for Corporate Europe Observatory, an NGO monitoring corporate lobbying in Brussels.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

EU parliament suspends Kaili's VP 'duties' over Qatar scandal

European Parliament vice-president Eva Kaili has had her tasks suspended but retains her seat until a formal vote is taken. The move follows allegations of corruption as well as a spate of arrests by the Belgian police, involving €600,000 cash.

Socialists opposed parliament taking Qatar rights stand

The socialists in the European Parliament are leading compromise talks on human rights in Qatar despite voting against putting the issue to a plenary vote. The move comes after the Left demanded that the European Parliament take a stand.


Ethics after Qatargate

The dumpster fire at the European Parliament may be largely of the EU's own making.

Why are rightwing MEPs now going after NGOs?

It's become clear Qatargate is being used by rightwing MEPs to cast doubt on civil society. For them, the sometimes successful campaigns by often under-financed and understaffed NGOs is a pain — it counters their private sector and neo-liberal ideology.

Can Green Deal survive the 2024 European election?

Six months ahead of the EU elections, knocking an 'elitist' climate agenda is looking like a vote-winner to some. Saving the Green Deal and the EU's climate ambitions starts with listening to Europeans who are struggling to make ends meet.

Latest News

  1. How Moldova is trying to control tuberculosis
  2. Many problems to solve in Dubai — honesty about them is good
  3. Sudanese fleeing violence find no haven in Egypt or EU
  4. How should EU reform the humanitarian aid system?
  5. EU suggests visa-bans on Israeli settlers, following US example
  6. EU ministers prepare for all-night fiscal debate
  7. Spain's Nadia Calviño backed to be EIB's first female chief
  8. Is there hope for the EU and eurozone?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us