Sponsored (dis)content — Qatar’s Parliament diplomacy — Who has Commission access? – POLITICO
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By SARAH WHEATON
HOWDY. Welcome to the first EU Influence of 2023 — the year of Gen Z as “a new political and geopolitical force, especially in the United States and Europe,” according to the Eurasia Group’s 2023 Top Risks Report. The consultancy calls this risk the “Tik Tok Boom” — you’ve surely seen that EU Commissioners Margrethe Vestager and Thierry Breton will meet with TikTok’s CEO in the coming weeks — but whither Twitter? Another lobbyist for the social media site is out, this time Berlin-based disinformation specialist Daniel Weimert.
STOCKHOLM’S MIXED SPONSORSHIP POLICY: Over the next six months, the team in charge of planning official meetings in Stockholm and Brussels for Sweden’s presidency of the Council of the EU won’t be accepting sponsorships, according to a statement. But there’s some pretty substantial fine print: That only applies to the secretariat. If ministries want to hold their own presidency-related events, they can recruit help from sponsors.
Sponsors, huh? The EU covers costs for “formal” presidency events — think summits — but it’s up to the presidency to pay for the “informal” meetings of ministers, conferences and cultural events, often held on their home turf rather than in Brussels. To help foot the bill — and promote domestic businesses — some capitals have recruited sponsors to provide financial or in-kind aid.
Influence win-win: For companies, it’s a way to advertise and burnish their brand in an international context. It’s also, especially in the nightmares of good-governance advocates, a sneaky way to promote a corporate agenda at the Council level.
SPONSORED (DIS)CONTENT: Stockholm’s decision to leave a door to sponsorships open is “incredibly disappointing, “ said Vicky Cann, a researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory, a transparency NGO that has tracked presidency sponsorships. “This has been a stain on the rotating presidencies of the Council for well over a decade now.”
France, for example, came under fire during its presidency a year ago for using Stellantis and Renault for in-kind transportation help. Paris trumpeted the partnership, which involved exclusively hybrid or electric vehicles, as a show of commitment to net-zero emissions. The issue? The French presidency oversaw negotiations over things like charging infrastructure for electric cars.
“They try and brand it, ‘This is great, this is green, this is eco,’” said Vicky Cann, a researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory, a transparency NGO. “They totally ignore that there is a conflict of interest.”
Lisbon’s links: In 2021, Portugal came under fire for linking up with outfits like The Navigator Company, a pulp and paper producer known for hiring ex-pols, and beverage vendors with a stake in debates over the EU’s health policy ambitions. (Check out this deep-dive from my colleagues Aitor Hernández-Morales and Lili Bayer.)
Resistance to change: Following a scolding from the EU Ombudsman, the Council drew up some guidelines in 2021 for sponsorships, with broad statements about avoiding conflicts of interest and offering a public list of sponsors. The clearest instruction was that the sponsor can’t use the Council logo.
“We just think the whole thing should be banned,” Cann said. “We’re not talking about large sums of money anyway.”
BABY EU CAN DRIVE MY CAR: Sweden’s policy is a shift from 2009, when Volvo was the largest of three sponsors.
Czech it: While it’s unclear exactly what that sponsorship entailed, inviting automakers to sign up to provide transportation has become a common approach. Most recently, the Czech presidency noted Škoda and Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles as overall partners for providing (electric) cars and buses, respectively — roles the companies bid for in “an open call tender that was open to all carmakers,” said Alice Krutilova, director of the Czech government’s Council presidency office.
Separately, the Czech presidency listed sponsors recruited by ministries (subject to ethics regulations adopted in 2021), in a possible preview of what the Swedish approach could look like.
SPAIN SAYS NO: Spain will not have corporate sponsorships during its presidency in the second half of this year, a diplomatic source told EU Influence. Contracts for things like food, audiovisual services and security will be awarded through tenders — and paid for.
BELGIUM WANTS A LIFT: Belgium is up next, in early 2024, and sponsorship opportunities will be limited to vehicles, Belgian presidency coordinator Hendrik Van de Velde told us. As with others, companies will have to bid for this opportunity to provide free wheels.
With NGOs’ access to policymakers under scrutiny in the Parliament corruption scandal, this new academic analysis from Business and Politics caught our eye. It games out how likely civil society organizations are likely to get face-time with different types of Commission officials, relative to corporate players.
QATAR MAKES ITS CASE
HOW THE WORLD LOBBIES THE PARLIAMENT: Qatar’s government repeatedly sought to set up more formal relations with the European Parliament in the past year — efforts that were rebuffed, according to a spokesperson for European Parliament President Roberta Metsola.
In a meeting between Metsola’s cabinet and Doha’s ambassador to Brussels, the Qataris proposed that the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, address the plenary. That request was “diplomatically postponed indefinitely,” the spokesperson said.
At another the Qataris proposed a cooperation agreement between the Parliament and the Shura Council — an idea the cabinet did not act on, according to the spokesperson.
Standard operating procedure: To be clear, this isn’t part of the corruption scandal brewing in the Parliament. On the contrary, this is part of the normal back-and-forth between third countries and the EU institutions. It’s not unusual for leaders (both in and outside the EU) to ask for speaking time in the plenary; it’s pretty unusual that the request is granted.
More meetings: Qatar’s envoy met with Metsola’s then-cabinet chief Alessandro Chiocchetti three times in 2022, according to the spokesperson: on February 28, March 23 and June 21.
Chiocchetti has since been elevated to secretary general of the Parliament, in a process that critics said was marred by horse-trading and backroom deals. The meetings between Al Malki and Chiocchetti were flagged by Transparency International EU, which has called for Chiocchetti’s appointment to be rescinded.
A PEEK IN CHIOCCHETTI’S DIPLOMATIC DIARY: The Metsola spokesperson noted that it’s the head of cabinet’s job to meet with ambassadors, as well as EU member country and regional representatives. Chiocchetti met with 77 ambassadors during his tenure, the spokesperson said. All but a few meetings were at the envoys’ request, apart from invitations to representatives of Iran and Egypt to discuss human rights issues.
A list of Chiocchetti’s meetings provided to POLITICO shows he also had three meetings this year with Egypt and Portugal. He met with a representative from Ukraine five times.
Qatar’s take: A Qatari government spokesperson declined to respond. The government has denied any involvement in the alleged corruption scandal, saying the state “works through institution-to-institution engagement and operates in full compliance with international laws and regulations.”
Indeed, the government has made no secret of its engagement with Chiocchetti. It cites discussions about “bilateral relations and ways to enhance and develop them” in posts about Ambassador to the EU and NATO Abdulaziz bin Ahmed Al Malki’s meetings on February 28 and June 21.
EU’S OUTREACH TO THE EMIR: Before the Qatari mission asked for the emir’s speaking slot, Qatar’s ruler had already received open invitations to visit Brussels from other EU institutions in the spring of 2022.
Michel’s charm offensive: Amid growing fears of Russian aggression, Council President Charles Michel called Qatar’s emir on January 28. On the agenda: gas supplies, according to Council spokesman Barend Leyts. Qatar is a top global exporter of natural gas.
As a follow-up, Michel wrote to Al-Thani in March, inviting the emir for an official visit. He thanked Qatar for helping with evacuations from Afghanistan, for supporting Ukraine and for offering up liquefied natural gas. Michel was also working on shoring up relations with other Gulf states around this time, Leyts noted.
Berlaymont, too: According to documents viewed by EU Influence, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also invited Al-Thani to visit Brussels and meet with her, in a letter dated April 19.
ON THE RECORD
‘I understand why you ask questions, but it is not that I am less critical of these companies because I own shares in them.”
— Danish Renew MEP Karen Melchior, who worked on tech regulation while holding stakes in Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Nintendo, Nokia and Zoom, to Follow the Money. The Parliament’s code of conduct calls on MEPs to disclose and “take the necessary steps to address” any conflicts of interest, but generally leaves decisions about what counts — and what to do about it — in the hands of MEPs. Melchior told the Dutch investigative news outlet that she considered disclosing her stock-holdings to be voluntary.
AUDITING THE TRANSPARENCY REGISTER: My colleague Barbara Moens interviewed Annemie Turtelboom, the Belgian member of the European Court of Auditors, about her new Dutch-language book, “Het geld van Europa” — “The money of Europe.”
Work in progress: Before the scandal broke, the EU’s spending watchdog was already working on an audit of the transparency register — which will now no doubt be closely watched. The EU’s procedures and scrutiny may lead “to some bureaucracy, to be frank, but [they have] also led to an enormous security system that has been installed,” Turtelboom said.
Independence is everything: The European Court of Auditors, which had been battling its own ethics scandal, is now led by Tony Murphy. Turtelboom stressed the importance of the institution’s independence. “It’s in our mutual interest to respect each others’ roles,” Turtelboom said when asked about pressure from the Commission — for example when it comes to Brussels’ refusal to release details of the EU’s multibillion-euro Pfizer vaccine deal. “If you have strong facts and strong figures, then you also have a strong case. And I think also it would not be that smart from the Commission to try to influence our reports because that could also backfire.” Read more in Playbook.
NOTES ON ANOTHER SCANDAL: The Commission last month formally rejected our appeal to get the ex-Commissioner Neelie Kroes’ submitted-then-withdrawn request to work for Uber before her cooling-off period ended. Now there’s a new reason: The document “has in the meantime been made part of the administrative file covering an ongoing investigation of the European Anti-Fraud Office.” Read the previous installment of our Kafka-esque quest for this document.
SWEDES TO KNOW: My colleague Clothilde Goujard has this guide to Sweden’s top influencers. Make your acquaintance with the likes of Lars Danielsson, Jessika Roswall, Gertrud Ingestad and more.
— Michael Bruton moves from writing speeches for Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarčič to advising the director general of communication, Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen.
CONSULTING & COMMS
— The MCI Group’s Logos recently acquired the boutique consultancy Business Bridge Europe.
— Mira Kaloshi leaves SEC Newgate EU to be chief of cabinet for Population, Civil Status, International Relations in Brussels’ Schaerbeek commune.
— Our friend and colleague Saim Saeed ditched us at POLITICO to be an associate director at FGS Global.
— Louka Lacroix is a new research associate at Rud Pedersen Public Affairs.
— Haifa Al Jedea has been appointed Saudi Arabia’s new ambassador to the EU, to replace Saad Bin Mohammed Alarify. She was previously managing director of SRMG Think, a newly established think tank by the Saudi Research and Media Group, according to Alarabiya.
— David O’Sullivan, of the Institute of International and European Affairs, will be the EU’s new international special envoy for the implementation of EU sanctions.
— Giuseppe Famà is now a European External Action Service policy officer working with the EU Political and Security Committee, via the International Crisis Group.
— Adam McCarthy, formerly of the Cobalt Institute, joined the European Tyre and Rubber Manufacturers’ Association as secretary general, replacing Fazilet Cinaralp, who will remain as a senior adviser for a few months
— Leticia Zuleta de Reales Ansaldo has been promoted to head of cabinet of European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, replacing Alessandro Chiocchetti. As the Times of Malta noted, the appointment quashed rumors that Metsola had a different candidate in mind.
— Emanuela Dimonte has been promoted to deputy head of development at Bruegel.
THANKS TO: Barbara Moens, Lili Bayer and Louise Guillot; visual producer Arnau Busquets Guàrdia, web producer Fiona Lally and my editor, Nicholas Vinocur.
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