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30th Jan 2023

Opinion

'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: Matt Tempest)
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'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?

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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.

Disclaimer

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

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