25th Mar 2023


Why are rightwing MEPs now going after NGOs?

  • This week under the banner of 'improving transparency and NGOs', the centre-right European People's Party managed to get a plenary debate on the issue (Photo: European People's Party)
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The united political outrage in the European Parliament following Qatargate lasted more or less until Christmas.

There was — granted — an ambitious, cross-party resolution voted upon on 15 December, to clean up the political mess collectively by strengthening transparency and ethics rules and installing real, independent enforcement of those.

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  • The fact is that under current Transparency Register rules, NGOs have to provide more detailed funding information than corporate lobbies (Photo: Corporate Europe Observatory)

But before the year ended this political will began to melt. There were early signs of a conservative backlash.

In December, the centre-right European People Party (EPP) tabled a resolution to abolish the European Parliament's urgent resolutions on human rights, "until we can ensure with certainty that the integrity of the process is not violated by third countries such as Qatar".

After the resolution was rejected, the EPP announced it would withdraw from these parliamentary proceedings. The EPP soon declared that, in fact, '"we need to talk about NGOs."

Green German MEP Reinhard Butikofer reacted angrily, claiming the EPP was using Qatargate as an excuse to undermine human rights work because "they wanted to abolish [urgent resolutions] anyway."

The Renew Europe liberal group pointed out that "silence of the European Parliament on human rights issues would be exactly what the Qatari bribery wanted to achieve."

Civil Society Europe (CSE) issued a statement, and welcomed the calls of the parliament resolution, stating that "civil society organisations have for decades been on the forefront of denouncing the lack of action by EU institutions to address corruption and lack of transparency".

Conservative backlash

In the new year things became clear: Qatargate is being used by rightwing politicians to cast doubt over civil society. For them, the sometimes successful campaigns by often under-financed and understaffed NGOs is a pain — it counters their private sector narrative and neo-liberal ideology.

This is nothing new.

Years ago, after a broad civil society movement successfully rallied against the controversial and now defunct trade and investment agreement (TTIP) between the EU and US, German EPP MEP Markus Pieper wanted to convince his colleagues of the committee of budgetary control that they should do a report into the finances of civil society.

He commissioned a report — later etracted by the EPP — by which Pieper denounced that the EU was funding NGOs who he bizarrely claimed were "opposing European values". Pieper even suggested that "NGOs that do not comply with the EU's strategic commercial and security policy objectives should not receive EU funding".

This week under the banner of "improving transparency and NGOs", the EPP managed to get a plenary debate on the issue. Others have opportunistically jumped on the bandwagon.

In an interview Paul Varakas, tobacco lobbyist and chief of the EU lobbyists association Society of European Affairs Professionals (SEAP), said policymakers should also keep a close eye on NGOs funding by foundations, whose donors he claims are rarely disclosed, and though "most Brussels-based NGOs are in the EU transparency register, more attention should be emphasised on where their funding comes from".

SEAP has numerous members working for the tobacco, chemicals and pesticides industry, unhappy with NGOs disrupting their corporate agendas.

The Budapest-based website European Conservative published an article with the title Soros-Backed Lobbying Hotline Launched for EU Officials after my NGO Corporate Europe Observatory, and German lobby watchdog LobbyControl recently launched LobbyLeaks.

EPP MEP Rainer Wieland went on a broader attack on NGOs, ignoring that NGOs already are required to publish financial information in the EU's Transparency Register: "We should have the same expectations from NGOs as from others. It should be clear where the money comes from."

These reactions echo the anti-NGO and anti-Soros campaigns by Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban, a long time member of the EPP group. Only after Orban dismantled freedom of press and an independent juridical system did the EPP kick him out.

NGOs actually more transparent

The fact is that under current Transparency Register rules, NGOs have to provide more detailed funding information than corporate lobbies.

Transparency NGOs promote the same strict rules for all types of lobbies. Also, there is a fundamental difference between corporations and NGOs in the context of lobbying. Corporates have endless deep pockets to finance lobby strategies to defend commercial private interests. Civil society has a fraction of these budgets to finance advocacy in the general interest.

Claudio Francavilla, senior EU advocate at Human Rights Watch tweeted that the enemy is corruption, not NGOs: "The ongoing witch-hunt against NGOs in the wake of Qatargate is pathetic, pointless, and most of all harmful to EU parliament's own human rights work and to victims of abuses".

German Green MEP Daniel Freund said: "Good that most of Brussels NGOs are very transparent about their finances. Would be great to have same transparency for third countries as well, right? Especially those — like UAE — who like to invite MEPs on sponsored trips?"

The essence of Qatargate is indeed that foreign, often repressive, regimes are using different methods and ways to influence EU policies.

Corporate Europe Observatory has been raising the alarm about repressive regime lobbying in Brussels for years. We have consistently pointed out problems in the current EU rules and institutional culture which have failed to tackle these problems.

From the outset we said that 'Qatargate' is just the tip of the iceberg. And whereas Qatargate is about S&D politicians, both before and after Qatargate there have been revelations about rightwing politicians receiving money from, for example, the Kremlin, Morocco and the Emirates, while defending the interests of those repressive regimes. Why is no one taking notice?

The question is not whether NGOs should apply transparency. The question is why now certain politicians try to divert the essence of the Qatargate affair onto civil society?

Author bio

Hans van Scharen is a researcher and campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory, the NGO watchdog that monitors corporate lobbying in Brussels.


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

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