Wednesday

22nd Feb 2017

Brussels acts to avoid Abramoff-style lobbying scandal

  • Who is doing what on behalf of whom? (Photo: CE)

The European Commission hopes its new transparency initiative can prevent an Abramoff-type lobbying fiasco in Europe, but EU institutions face suspicion under the current system.

"The commission is taking steps to avoid a European Abramoff scandal," administration commissioner Siim Kallas stated on Thursday (26 January) at a seminar in Brussels.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

He added that public opinion of EU financial management is "negative, to put it mildly" with anecdotes flying around that "decisions are made under the influence of invisible hands."

US lobbyist Jack Abramoff three weeks ago pleaded guilty to bribing US officials and politicians in what the Washington Post called "the biggest political corruption and bribery scandal in a generation."

"If we have the same scandal, it would be extremely bad just to react," Mr Kallas indicated. "We cannot stop bad things from happening, but we can say, look, if something happens, we have preventive measures, we have reaction mechanisms."

He said most internal commission cases handled by OLAF, the EU anti-fraud watchdog, relate to public procurement and foreign aid while the volume of common agricultural policy (CAP) probes is "quite small."

Mr Kallas also showed concern that MEPs are introducing amendments and voting in line with corporations, stating that some members represented "the interests of particular ports" in the recent defeat of an EU port services bill.

Meanwhile, the head of the commission's professional ethics unit, Donatienne Claeys-Bouuaert, said her staff is merely "human" and it is hard to say if, for example, the "petits cadaeux" given by lobbyists at the end of the year should be declared or not.

"To offer a bottle of wine or ten bottles of wine is not necessarily corruption," the official, who gives mandatory ethics classes to new administrators, said.

Light on new measures

Mr Kallas’ new transparency measures aim to: get all member states to disclose end-recipients of EU farm and cohesion aid; create a common code of conduct for all EU institutions and create an EU-wide register of lobbyists to show "who is doing what on behalf of whom."

The timetable for the project is unclear.

He hinted the lobbyists' register will be purely voluntary, saying "mandatory legislation, heavy bureaucracy is not in our plans so far."

Mr Kallas indicated the measures have met with internal hostility with "people in several circles saying we don't need additional transparency, everything is OK, what's the problem?"

The commissioner added that the UK and Denmark's revelations in 2004 and 2005 that most CAP funds go to big firms and royal families rather than struggling farmers "initiated an electric debate about the rationality of the European subsidy system."

The transparency project is the third major ethics push in Brussels since the Eurostat scandal of 2003 and the Santer commission’s resignation in 1999.

The subject got extra attention after revelations last Spring that commission president Jose Manuel Barroso took a free yacht holiday from a shipping baron friend.

EU Abramoff impossible, lobbyists say

Brussels lobbyist association SEAP claims an Abramoff-type EU scandal is impossible however.

SEAP founder Rogier Chorus explained that unlike Europe, US politicians woo lobbyists to mobilise funds for policies, with a lot more money sloshing around in Washington than in Brussels.

US firms spent €2.4 billion on lobbying in 2004, while the closest thing to an estimate of the Brussels sector is a commission figure that Brussels lobbying firms generate income of €60-90 million a year.

Mr Chorus said that in SEAP's eight year history the association’s voluntary code of conduct has never been broken and that he does not know of any Brussels lobby fraud cases outside SEAP either.

"There is no scandal to talk about, in fact we are talking about things which are not there," he said.

Transparency International Belgium director Francois Vincke remarked that "We all know by now that having a code of conduct is fine, but implementing it is another matter."

Another Brussels lobby association, EACON, also painted a less rosy picture.

EACON partner Soren Haar said Brussels has several lobbying cultures: the British work via individual companies and PR consultancies; the French and Germans rely on trade federations while southern and Mediterranean countries use "informal networks, persons you know, even families."

Mr Haar indicated new member states sometimes display a "lack of lobbying culture" behaving in Brussels along similar lines as under the former communist regimes.

Brussels told to take tougher line on lobbyists

If the European Commission wants its proposed register for lobbyists in the EU to work, the registration has to be made compulsory rather than voluntary as is currently planned, lobbyists themselves said on Monday.

MEPs set to approve Canada trade deal

The European Parliament is expected to give the green light to the EU-Canada free trade agreement, which would start being implemented in April.

EU leaders to discuss migration, in Trump's shadow

New US president Trump overshadows the Malta summit of EU leaders on Friday, as they discuss the bloc's future amid new geopolitical realities, and step up efforts to stop migration via Libya from North African countries.

EU leaders must stand up to Trump, say MEPs

MEPs have urged the EU to stand up for European values, starting with rejecting Trump's presumed choice for US ambassador, who has stated that he wants to "tame" the bloc.

News in Brief

  1. Romanian parliament buries controversial corruption decree
  2. Dozens drown off Libyan coast
  3. EU ministers approve anti-tax avoidance directive
  4. Poland rejects EU criticism of court changes
  5. German nationalist leader met with Putin allies in Moscow
  6. German housing market overheated, says Bundesbank
  7. France invites three EU leaders for Versailles summit in March
  8. Greece agrees on new bailout reforms

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Martens CentreEU and US Migration Policies Compared: Join the Debate on February 28th
  2. Swedish EnterprisesTechnology and Data Flows - Shaping the Society of Tomorrow
  3. UNICEFNearly 1.4 Million Children at Risk of Death as Famine Looms Across Africa and Yemen
  4. Malta EU 2017End of Roaming Fees: Council Reaches Agreement on Wholesale Caps
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Innovation House Opens in New York to Help Startups Access US Market
  6. Centre Maurits CoppietersMinorities and Migrations
  7. Salzburg Global SeminarThe Child in the City: Health, Parks and Play
  8. UNICEFNumber of Ukrainian Children Needing Aid Nearly Doubles to 1 Million Over the Past Year
  9. Centre Maurits CoppietersThe Situation of Refugee Women in Europe
  10. Salzburg Global SeminarToward a Shared Culture of Health: Charting the Patient-Clinician Relationship
  11. European Free AllianceAustria Should Preserve & Promote Bilingual and Multinational Carinthia
  12. Martens CentreShow Your Love for Democracy! Take Part in Our Contest: "If It's Broken, Let's Fix It"

Latest News

  1. Should Europeans spend more on defence?
  2. Dieselgate: EU disappointed with VW's treatment of customers
  3. French police raid Le Pen's party office
  4. The Armenia-Azerbaijan war: A refugee's story
  5. Greece and creditors break bailout deadlock
  6. Internal EU report exposes Libya turmoil
  7. EU commissioner condemns 'delay' in post-Dieselgate reform
  8. Sweden fights back as foreign leaders make up bad news

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. CISPECloud Computing Leaders Establish Data Protection Standards to Protect Customer Data
  2. Malta EU 2017Landmark Deal Reached With European Parliament on Portability of Online Content
  3. Belgrade Security ForumBSF 2017: Building a Common Future in the Age of Uncertainty
  4. CESIEU Not to Revise the Working Time Directive
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsAzerbaijan: 76 NGOs Urge the EU to Use President's Visit to Insist on Human Rights Reforms
  6. UNICEFDeadliest Winter for Migrant Children Crossing the Central Mediterranean
  7. World VisionGaza Staff Member Pleads Not Guilty
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region First to Consider Complete Ban on Microplastics in Cosmetics
  9. Dialogue PlatformWhy the West 'Failed to Understand' Turkey
  10. European Jewish CongressInternational Holocaust Remembrance Day Ceremony
  11. European Free AllianceCatalan Independence Referendum: A Matter of Democracy
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsKyrgyzstan: No Justice for Human Rights Defender Azimjan Askarov