Wednesday

1st Feb 2023

Lobbyists and lawyers start split from Moscow

  • Daniel Freund, German Green MEP: 'They spend more than €3m a year on lobbying in Brussels' (Photo: Daniel Huizinga)
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As the increasingly brutal invasion of Ukraine fuels public scrutiny of corporate links with Moscow, some of Brussels' best-known lobbyists and law firms are breaking ties with Russian clients.

Initiatives like the Ukraine Corporate Index compiled by the Brussels-based Good Lobby have largely put the spotlight on multinationals. And McDonalds, Netflix and Nike are among 300 household name firms to have suspended business with Russia in order to avoid a consumer boycott.

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But lawyers, consultants and accountants are also feeling the heat. In Britain, a lawmaker last week used parliamentary privilege to name lawyers still representing Russian clients.

In Brussels, Transparency International has called on the EU institutions to strip lobbyists of accreditation if they continue to act on behalf of Kremlin-linked companies.

"We need to make sure that Putin's Russia no longer has a voice in Brussels and that Russian dirty money can no longer buy EU influence," said Transparency International EU director Michiel van Hulten.

"Russian state-owned companies have a long history of lobbying the EU, often with the help of Western consultancies and law firms, but also through Brussels think tanks and trade associations," said van Hulten, who is a former Dutch member of the European Parliament.

Some consultancies, such as Brunswick or Kreab, were already refusing Russian clients well before the invasion in late February. Law firm Covington represented the Ukrainian government on a pro-bono basis in its case against Russia at the Hague this week.

Other firms have only acted post-invasion.

Linklaters was among the first major law firms with a big presence in Brussels to have cut ties with Russia and closed its Moscow office.

Another firm, DLA Piper, said they are "urgently reviewing all Russia-related client engagements to ensure we do not act in a way that conflicts with our values."

Dentons, whose website lists work on behalf of Russian companies and whose managing partner in Brussels is a former Russian diplomat, said they "have already concluded certain relationships and declined certain instructions" as part of a review.

Bird & Bird, among the top five law firms in Brussels by lobbying spend, said they had withdrawn from and declined "Russian-related work where such work is contrary to our values."

But in what is perhaps a sign of the wider corporate soul-searching amid the unfolding conflict, Bird & Bird said it would "continue to assist clients who are reviewing their business relationships with Russia, which includes assessing the continuity of their operations in Russia."

Of the two consultancies with some of the highest EU lobbying spend in Brussels, FTI Consulting said they are "reviewing all ongoing connections with non-sanctioned Russian entities" and will withdraw from them "where it is appropriate," while Fleishman-Hillard said it "will not accept any work with Russian, Luhansk or Donetsk-based companies or individuals."

FIPRA International, another consultancy with a major presence in Brussels, said it had reviewed its clientele to ensure the firm was in compliance with the sanctions decision taken by the EU and national governments against Russia and Russian companies.

"We will continue acting with due diligence as we keep monitoring the situation," FIPRA said.

Pressure to end relations with Russian lobbies also is coming from pro-transparency lawmakers in the European Parliament.

Daniel Freund, a German Green, has told European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and European Parliament president Roberta Metsoa to bar 11 Russian state-owned companies and "pro-Kremlin companies" including Gazprom and Rosatom from their premises.

"They spend more than three million euros a year on lobbying in Brussels," Freund wrote on Twitter. "It would be ridiculous to have those who finance Putin's war influence European politics."

But Andreas Geiger, the managing partner of one leading Brussels law and lobbying firm, Alber & Geiger, defended some level of ongoing contact, and insisted that the moves were over-hasty.

"Our experience shows that companies, whether American, European, Chinese or Russian, usually have no interest of getting into political crossfire or geopolitical disputes," said Geiger, who is the author of the EU Lobbying Handbook.

"I think often clients from such countries don't even have interests aligned with their government's activities because they actually suffer financially from it" and "so helping them find a way out of the situation is mostly not even illegitimate I would say."

Geiger said his firm does not currently represent any Russian clients and carefully scrutinises cases before accepting them — but he said it would "not shy away from representing Russian clients even at this point," if "their interests are justified."

Author bio

Edward Steel is a freelance journalist based in Brussels.

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