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By SARAH WHEATON
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HOWDY. In recent months, I’ve been hearing a lot of frustration about transparency. Big Tech companies that reveal more of their lobbying operations only to have that information seized on by NGOs and journalists. MEPs who fill out their disclosures only to have unflattering data scrutinized in the press, while those who blow off the filings avoid this attention. Political organizations that invite EU Influence to receptions, only to have me poke fun at their speakers and guests — which wouldn’t happen if they’d kept the event fully private. This all disincentivizes transparency, I hear.
Here’s the thing: You don’t embrace transparency to get credit from journalists and campaigners. It’s not our job to reward you for it, or cut you slack for what you end up revealing. You do it because transparency (and that potential for scrutiny) makes you a more ethical, democracy-friendly operation. You do it because it’s the right thing to do.
MAKING IT LOOK EASY
ETHICS LONG GAME
SHRUGGING OFF OVERSIGHT: With former MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri looking set to tell the full story of his illegal influence operation, the outstanding questions about this particular incident might finally get some answers.
The next outstanding question: Will knowing the full details deflate momentum for systemic ethics overhaul?
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MISSED OPPORTUNITY: There’s been a drumbeat of reminders that the European Parliament doesn’t hold itself to broader European standards when it comes to corruption prevention. The whistleblower protection rules it passed don’t apply, for example. The Parliament’s public calls for an independent ethics body have been stymied (in part) by private resistance.
Add another one to the list: The EU isn’t a full member of the Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO), a division of the Council of Europe (the Strasbourg-based human rights body) that monitors ethics regs for politicians, judges and more. For members, GRECO’s recommendations are legally binding.
For thee but not for me: All 27 EU countries are members of GRECO. Recently, it’s held nations like Germany and Belgium accountable for gaps in oversight on matters like lobbying registers, as we wrote about earlier this year. But the EU itself is not an active member — meaning rules for MEPs don’t face the same scrutiny as rules for national members of parliament.
“We are applying a European standard,” said Marin Mrčela, the Croatian judge in charge of GRECO. “The same standard should apply to the European Parliament.”
What GRECO membership means: “An external, technical, independent and professional assessment on the ethics and integrity framework” that would point toward needed reforms, Mrčela said. Those reforms, he added, “are not comfortable. And they are not meant to be comfortable. But they are key to rebuild trust in an essential institution like the European Parliament.”
History: During the previous Swedish presidency — back in 2009 — the Council of the EU adopted an anti-corruption plan. This “Stockholm Programme” called on the European Commission to submit a report by the following year to look at ways for the EU to “accede” to GRECO. As of July 2019, the EU has held observer status; but full membership appears stalled.
FAMILIAR ROADBLOCK: Mrčela acknowledged “some arguments that there are legal obstacles.” (That’s also a concern regarding an independent, EU-wide ethics body.)
“But when we look into that, there is basically nothing,” he continued. “Everything depends on political will.”
Go it alone? As with the inter-institutional ethics body, the Parliament certainly isn’t the only institution holding up EU membership in GRECO. But in the case of a GRECO audit, the Parliament could opt to get help unilaterally by requesting an ad hoc assessment.
MORE EXCEPTIONALISM: There’s a tradition that the Parliament president doesn’t have to disclose on the public register the gifts they receive from lobbies and foreign dignitaries. At least, that’s the contention of the person currently in that office, MEP Roberta Metsola, who says she’s going above and beyond by reporting all her gifts — past the deadline, in the case of 125 of them, Eddy Wax reports. There’s no written evidence of this exception, but it is true that pretty much no Parliament president has bothered to list their goodies.
HOW THE GROUPS ARE RESPONDING TO QATARGATE: As to political will for an ethics overhaul, there wasn’t much evidence of it at Tuesday’s “debate” about the scandal. With a few exceptions, it was an exercise in partisan potshots and score settling. Here is EU Influence’s (admittedly liberal) paraphrase of opening remarks from each political group. (You can watch for yourself here.)
Vladimír Bilčík, European People’s Party: This is a distraction from more important stuff like Russian aggression. “Individual rotten apples” in this house are making us look bad. So, sure, we need to clean house and dispel doubts. But also, “We do need to talk about the hypocrisy of some of our colleagues” who were outspoken on human rights, but turned out to be tied up in Qatargate.
Raphaël Glucksmann, Socialists & Democrats: My own side of the political spectrum betrayed us. But this is a bigger problem of foreign influence-shopping. We need a mandatory transparency register, an independent ethics body and whistleblower protections.
Nathalie Loiseau, Renew: I’m angry. The EU needs an independent ethics body — inspired by the one in France. Russia was O.G. of illicit influence. We still need to find out if those who are defending Russia are being paid — too bad the left is trying to stop us. “I really wonder why.”
Terry Reintke, Greens: Don’t use the investigation as a reason to delay reforms. Props to Roberta Metsola for her early proposals, but we need a special committee, better whistleblower protections and a mandatory transparency register that includes third countries. Also, let’s nominate our negotiators for an inter-institutional ethics body.
Paolo Borchia, Identity and Democracy: “I’m dumbfounded by the behavior of the Socialists & Democrats.” S&D MEP Glucksmann is in charge of a committee on foreign interference, but he missed this. A “witch hunt” looking into my party’s links to Russia has been tossed out of court — we’re owed an apology. ID deserves a chance to be among the Parliament’s vice presidents.
Dominik Tarczyński, European Conservatives and Reformists: This isn’t just about Morocco or Qatar. The accused dealt with AI, crypto — and aid to Poland. Panzeri’s report prompted Poland to be tarred as fascist in the European Parliament. We won’t let corrupt Brussels pols besmirch our country — so now all legislation regarding Poland should be rescinded, and all the Pegasus committee amendments from Kaili should be deleted.
Manon Aubry, The Left: This is just the “tip of the iceberg.” Morocco has created a “tentacular system” that might have also benefited Saudi Arabia and Mauritania. The door is still wide open for undue influence. The Parliament should implement measures from its resolution last month — Metsola’s more limited proposal isn’t welcome.
PANEL REVAMP ON THE TABLE: Rather than set up a special committee to respond to the scandal, as envisioned by last month’s Parliament resolution, there’s some talk of revamping an existing panel dedicated to foreign interference — chaired by Glucksmann — to consider broader reforms. Playbook has details.
ONE-UPSMANSHIP: S&D sees Metsola’s private, 14-point plan for ethics fixes released last week — and raises it by one, in this 15-point plan released today.
ADVENTURES IN EURENGLISH
UBER’S FILE: Uber is waging a last-ditch fight to get the Parliament to reverse course on the platform worker’s directive — and battle zones range from France to Switzerland, Pieter Haeck reports.
State of play: The Parliament’s employment committee in December backed a version of the proposals that’s seen as way more favorable to workers than platforms like Uber. But Swedish center-right lawmaker Sara Skyttedal has amassed enough signatures to challenge that version in a full plenary vote. That was originally scheduled for today, but it’s been postpone due to strikes in France.
In Davos: Jobs Commissioner Nicolas Schmit (one of the architects of the EU’s platform work bill) meets Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi (whose Brussels team has been fighting the Commission proposal tooth and nail) Wednesday in Davos. His message: platform work is helping drivers in the cost-of-living crisis.
In Strasbourg: Left-wing lawmakers and unions have rallied as well, prepared to counter Uber’s charm offensive. Protests from the likes of the European Trade Union Confederation were planned. At the request of The Left group, lawmakers also discussed last summer’s Uber files revelations Wednesday in plenary.
While it was an opportunity for them to stress how bad Uber is ahead the next plenary vote, there were also signs that the platform’s ‘that was then, this is now’ message about its lobbying practices is getting through. MEP Karen Melchior, a member of the crucial Renew bloc, condemned the practices revealed in the Uber Files as “completely unacceptable.” But then she noted that the work on the platform workers directive began well after the period addressed in the leaks — and that Uber isn’t the only platform in question.
In Paris: France’s National Assembly will set up an inquiry committee on the Uber Files, Laura Kayali reports. It was initially designed to target French President Emmanuel Macron specifically, but the scope had to be tweaked because of the president’s immunity.
The committee, which will run for six months, will focus instead on Uber’s lobbying in France, as well as “the social, economic and environmental consequences” of the “Uber model” in the country. Lawmakers will have the power to summon people to give testimony.
DUELING GREEN LISTS: A coalition of environmental and consumer groups — including BEUC, WWF and Transport & Environment — launched an alternative to the EU’s list of sustainable investments.
Taxonomy takedown: The European Commission’s list of sustainable activities, known as the taxonomy, aims to channel investor cash into the green transition. Its decision to include natural gas and nuclear, which came into force on January 1, was slammed by green groups for failing to follow scientific evidence.
The coalition has been “speaking to various investors informally over the past month,” Sebastien Godinot, a senior economist at the WWF’s European Policy Office, told my colleague Antonia Zimmermann. Some investors realize that using the Commission’s gas and nuclear criteria “could lead to severe reputational, economic and even legal risks,” he said, pointing to several lawsuits that were filed against the Commission over the taxonomy last year.
STELLANTIS OPTS OUT OF THE GAME: “We no longer have lobbyists,” Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares told Automotive News Europe.
Assuming it’s true, that’s an even more radical step than Tavares’ move to drop out of Brussels car lobby ACEA last year. He said at the time he’d set up a rival association, but now instead claims to be acting sans influencing. “We do not negotiate anymore,” Tavares said. “We can no longer wait for governments to make decisions — we have to run faster than regulation.”
POPPING IN DAVOS: Après Schwab, le déluge. Ryan Heath looks at the succession plan — or lack thereof — for Klaus Schwab, founder and chair of the World Economic Forum.
— Zoe Caramitsou-Tzira joined Rud Pedersen Public Affairs as an account manager for food and agriculture policy, via Harwood Levitt Consulting.
CONSULTING & COMMS
— Graham Ackerman will move from McKinsey to BCG London, Amsterdam and Brussels as senior director of communications.
— Enrico Pelosato has been promoted to associate consultant at Portland Communications Europe.
COUNCIL OF THE EU
— Kornelia Kozovska takes over as spokesperson for Eurogroup President Paschal Donohoe (a job that just got a bit more complicated) from Maria Tomasik, who will become press center lead at the European Council.
— Jan Hoogmartens, Belgium’s ambassador to China and a former Belgian Coreper I ambassador, is the incoming chief of staff to Belgian Foreign Affairs Minister Hadja Lahbib, as part of Belgium’s preparations for its Council presidency.
— Marco Peronaci is Italy’s new NATO ambassador. He replaces Francesco Talò, who has been appointed diplomatic adviser to Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
— Covington has hired Andris Piebalgs, a former EU Commissioner for Energy (2004 to 2009) and Development (2010 to 2014) as a senior adviser in the global public policy practice. His post-Commission C.V. includes being chairman of the Implementation Committee of the International Methane Emissions Observatory; chairman of the Board of Appeal of the Agency of the Cooperation of Energy Regulators; and the Florence School of Regulation of the European University Institute.
— Sergey Golyshin has been promoted to director – EU recruitment at Mavence.
— Stefano Romanelli is the new government affairs manager at EUCOPE – European Confederation of Pharmaceutical Entrepreneurs. He was previously at the consultancy Concilius Europe and replaces Vittoria Carraro, who is now a public affairs senior manager at Chiesi Group.
— Alicia Rojo Santos moves from Hanover Communication’s health team to Acumen‘s, where she’ll be an account director. (Thought bubble: Is anyone joining Hanover’s health team these days, or just departing?)
— Matti Rantanen is the new director general of EPPA – the European Paper Packaging Alliance.
— Also at EPPA, Antonio D’Amato, CEO of Seda International Packaging Group was elected president. He took over from Eric Le Lay of Huhtamaki Fiber & Foodservice, who is now vice president.
— Jonathan Cutuli has joined Heidelberg Materials as senior manager, government affairs, via UNIFE, the European Supply Industry association.
— Hussein Baoumi has been promoted to Middle East-North Africa advocacy officer at Amnesty International in Brussels.
— Kirill Gelmi has been promoted to pokesperson of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), taking over from Jana Cappello, who was promoted to head of unit in charge of communication, inter-institutional and international relations. Theresa Zahra takes on the role of deputy spokesperson.
— Marc Angel, a Socialists & Democrats MEP from Luxembourg, was just elected to take over MEP Eva Kaili’s Parliament vice president spot.
RIP: Irish in Brussels are mourning the January 12 death of Miruna Bouros, a consular officer at the Irish embassy to Belgium. She wrote about her impending death from cancer on her personal blog earlier this month. The embassy will close in her honor on Friday and has several memorial gatherings planned.
THANKS TO: Pieter Haeck, Eddy Wax, Laura Kayali, Antonia Zimmermann, Barbara Moens, Carlo Martuscelli and Jakob Hanke Vela; web producer Erika Di Benedetto and my editor Sonya Diehn.
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