How the EU cosied up to the defence lobby

Flags in front of the EU commission in Brussels Photo: Alvaro Millan/flickr

Consultants who advise the European Commission (EC) on its security policies have also been working for companies that win related research projects, funded by the European Union, raising concerns about conflict of interest.

A faceless building at Number 10 Rue Montoyer in Brussels hosts two tenants with an influential grip on the European Union security policy. Situated in the heart of “the European Quarter”, Aerospace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD) shares its address with the European Organisation for Security (EOS).

Both lobby bodies represent defence and security companies that win EU-funded contracts and appear very successful in winning tenders and setting the EU’s security agenda.

They are among the estimated 30,000 lobbyists who try to influence EU lawmakers in Brussels, often raising concerns about conflict of interest in the arcanes of EU policy making.

Inception

Things changed in the security sector when EU set up a security research programme in 2004, shortly after bombings in Madrid killed close to 200 people. The programme aimed to develop a European security industry, according to J Peter Burgess, an expert in the geopolitics of risk at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris.

Its focus shifted towards immigration and cybersecurity, on the back of an internationally bruising economic crisis, the rise of right-wing political parties, chronic unemployment, and the refugee crisis.

Part of EU’s strategy was to consult industry actors on related policies, programmes and their implementation in shaping projects for tender, so the Commission set up advisory groups. The Security Advisory Group (SAG) served a €1.4 billion programme called Security under EU’s 7th Research Framework Programme (FP7), from 2007 to 2013 with a budget of over €50 billion.  In 2014, the framework was rebranded as Horizon 2020 (H2020) and financed with nearly €80 billion, of which over €1.6 billion was allocated to implement its Secure Societies pillar.

Lobby fraternities

The industry has gained significant influence in shaping security policies, not the least through EOS and ASD.

Initially in 2007, five out of 20 SAG experts were working for an organisation affiliated to the EOS. In 2010, when most SAG members changed, seven out of 22 were affiliated to an EOS member.

The security advisory group (SAG) serving FP7 changed its name to Protection And Security Advisory Group (PASAG) under the new framework H2020.

Seven out of 30 PASAG members work with EOS-affiliated companies and even more have worked for or in partnerships with one.

The commission’s “strategy was to let the industry help to define the problems and plan the solutions, which they would then offer to develop,” claims Burgess, who has also advised the commission on its security programme.

Investigate Europe has carried out in-depth research into the backgrounds of consultants and the firms that win EU tenders and can reveal that industry stakeholders advise the commission, and later profit from their decisions.

The European Organisation for Security (EOS) lobby group has become a stable presence in the security advisory committees and has also won EU-funded security contracts.

EOS chief Luigi Rebuffi has been both a SAG and PASAG consultant. He also works for defence and security giant Thales, another EOS-affiliated EU contracts winner.

PASAG member Cristina Leone is an employee of Finmeccanica, an Italian multinational defence and security company, part of the EOS family. Finmeccanica has been successfully applying for EU-funded security research. Leone also works for ASD.

EU contractor and EOS member Airbus, one of the world’s largest defence companies, is linked to PASAG consultant Brigitte Serreault.

From the same lobby family, the Fraunhofer Institute, a German research organisation, is linked to two PASAG members. Fraunhofer won security contracts under the Secure Societies programme.

Ties with lobby group EOS go beyond direct employment. One such example is the case of Fabio Martinelli. Although the consultant has not been working for a Secure Societies contract winner, his employer, the Italian National Research Centre, has a partnership with one – Finmeccanica – called SERIT.

Additionally, five academic institutions that hire PASAG members receive EU funding for security research: the University of Athens in Greece, as well as four British academic institutions, namely the University of Oxford, the University of Brighton, the University of Salford and the University of Birmingham.

Graphic: EUObserver/Crina Boros

Blurring transparency

The commission used to be transparent about its consultants’ industry affiliation. But under Horizon 2020, it obscured their employment ties.

Experts can now join EU advisory groups in a “personal capacity”, meaning “acting independently and expressing their own personal views”, according to the commission.

Since May 2016, they have to sign a declaration of acceptance on joining, declaring “any conflict of interest that they could have,” to be filed by December 30, a commission spokesperson said.

“When an advisory group expert knowingly conceals a conflict of interest and this is discovered once a member, the commission will exclude the expert in question from the group,” said the spokesperson.

Other members, who could be appointed to represent an interest, a stakeholder, a company, government department or authorities from non-EU states, an NGO or an institution of some sort, are not required to file a declaration of interest.

Under present regulations, companies that employ European Commission consultants have no restrictions bidding for EU-funded projects.

“Members of Advisory groups are chosen for their expertise and frequently have connections with organisations bidding for research,” ex-FP7 consultant Andrew Sleigh said. “This is one of the reasons Advisory Groups are never involved in any way in assessment, selection or procurement decisions. “The final decision on topics to be included in the Work Programme is made by the Programme Committee of Member States’ officials.” The consultants’ role is to “advise the European Commission on the strategy for developing the scope of Work Programme Calls,” Sleigh insisted.

But we’re looking at a vicious circle: the preparation of work programmes for funding “involves the consultation of stakeholders. For this purpose 19 Horizon 2020 Advisory Groups have been set up as consultative bodies,” according to the commission.

Many PASAG advisors said that they have already filed their declarations. However, the commission has said that they will make them public after the deadline, which is December 30.

However, not every PASAG consultant has filed a declaration of interest in spite of the commission’s current regulations. Anne Lambert, a British civil servant, left without submitting hers.

Lambert worked for NATS, an air traffic control services provider, until March 2014. She joined the commission’s expert group in December 2015 and resigned less than a year later. She said she did not complete a declaration of interest because “the deadline for members of the commission’s expert groups… was after [she] had resigned from PASAG.”

The company has rejected any suggestion that she might have supported their bid.

All security consultants and their employers contacted by Investigate Europe have refuted any wrongdoing allegations.

UPDATE: “… [A]ny stakeholder from the private sector (EOS member or not) is invited by the European Commission to attend advisory groups that are governed by well-defined and transparent rules that prevents any conflict of interest,” EOS have said.

“There seems to be a very incomplete understanding among some people of what a conflict of interest looks like,” EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly told Investigate Europe.

She pointed out that a conflict of interest must be declared even if not exercised, and that filling in a declaration of interest is mandatory. The ombudsman called for the commission to take action against potential conflicts of interest.

A lobby backstage

Official documents from the commission prove that industry lobbyists are a vital part in shaping the European policy.

A memo obtained by the Dutch news website De Correspondent through an Access to Documents request mentions a meeting in November 2015 between the EU commission’s director general for Migration and Home Affairs Matthias Ruete and three lobbyists.

Among them were Burkard Schmitt, a former EU official versed in all aspects of security and defence, now working for ASD; and Alberto de Benedictis, a former manager of the Italian arms company Finmeccanica, who served as ADS chairman until early 2016.

The meeting was set up to discuss a research program called Security for Europe and its Citizens.

The memo for EU officials noted that ASD “had actively taken part in discussions to shape our strategic documents”.

Under a reform of SAG, it said, “representatives from industry, or with a strong industrial background, will be more numerous than in the past”.

Talks included consultant nominations: “We have six more names from industry on the list for 2016, 2017 or 2018 replacements. This will lead to a slight overall increase of industry representation in the SAG”, the memo reads.

Officials concluded that the Call for Proposals attracted more industry applicants in 2015 than in the previous year “because topics are more of interest to the industry”.

Furthermore, in a newsletter, ASD said that it had reached an agreement with the Commission on the treatment of Intellectual Property Rights in Pre-Commercial Procurement for security, an issue that had spoiled relations between ASD lobbyists and the commission for years.

Asked about property rights ownership, an EC spokesperson confirmed for Investigate Europe that “the research party who generated the findings (…) generally gets to keep them,” and that “the EU might also assume ownership under very specific circumstances and with the consent of the parties involved.”

“This closed community in the making, interested in the development of huge margins of profits for the industry, has successfully framed the parameters and rationale of EU-funded security research, in which the main stakeholders have increasingly played a role of gatekeepers,” said a study by the EU parliament’s Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs Policy department.

Following a complaint by anti-lobby organisation Corporate Europe Observatory, Ombudsman O’Reilly conducted her own investigation into the EU commission’s advisory bodies.

She concluded in her 2015 report that there was “the perceived imbalance in favour of corporate interests in certain groups and potential conflicts of interest of experts who participate in their personal capacity”.

A (shorter) version of this text was published by our media partner EUObserver.

Update on day of publication to feature comments from the EOS.