Revolving doors ­— The dirty downside of lobby politics in Brussels

The exterior of the European Parliament building in Brussels, with a row of flags in the front
The European Parliament in Brussels

When it comes to the influence of lobbyists, European politicians like to praise the rules by which they make their influence on EU legislation publicly known, and thus, reasonably controllable. “In terms of lobby transparency, the EU has been moving forward resolutely for years, and Brussels’ openness could even become a blueprint for national action,” Katharina Barley, Vice-President of the European Parliament, claimed. And indeed, commissioners and leading parliamentarians follow a good principle when dealing with interest groups. Anyone who wants to talk to express their concerns must be entered in the official lobby register with their name and budget. About 12,000 organisations and companies with about 40,000 employees are registered in this way. Without registration, there is no appointment, at least not officially. In addition, the meetings must be registered in databases. In this manner, those who take one-sided advice can quickly be scrutinised and come under pressure.

But this supposedly clean handling of the army of lobbyists has a dirty flip side: for hundreds of EU officials, commissioners and parliamentarians, the alleged distance to these whisperers is just for show. In reality, they are so close to them that they are only too happy to switch to their services immediately after leaving office and mandate, in order to have their knowledge or previous favours paid for. The examples are legion. After 2014, as many as 185 MPs moved from parliament to a lobbying post. A prominent example was the case of Sharon Bowles, the former chair of the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs, who joined the London Stock Exchange as Senior Strategic Counsel after her mandate ended.

“For hundreds of EU officials, commissioners and parliamentarians, the alleged distance to these [lobby] whisperers is just for show.”

Harald Schumann

Comparable changes of sides are also common among EU Commission officials. For example, the authority allowed its former head of department in the directorate for telecom networks, Reinald Krueger, to take time off to work as a consultant for the Vodafone group. No less controversial is the change of sides of the former EU official Aura Salla. Until the spring of 2020, she was in charge of disinformation and social networks at the Commission. Since last May, she has been feeding her insider knowledge to Facebook, which faces the threat of comprehensive regulation by the EU. It goes even further at the Department for the Regulation of Financial Markets. “Out of the five former directors between 2008-2017 who have now quit the Commission, four went to work for companies they once oversaw or lobby firms that represent them,” revealed Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), the EU’s leading lobby watchdog.

Also, of the 27 commissioners who left in 2014, 13 went on to be hired by lobbying agencies and companies. Particularly spectacular was former Commission President José Manuel Barroso’s new post as figurehead executive at the financial group Goldman Sachs. Later, IE reporter Paulo Pena managed to bring to light the exchange of letters and emails between Barroso and his staff and Goldman Sachs while he was still in office. The correspondence shows that Barroso had “extremely fruitful meetings” with Goldman’s top manager Lloyd Blankfein in New York several times during his term in office (as the latter wrote) without giving an account of the content of the conversations in official files. At the same time, Barroso’s staff received proposals for legislative changes from Goldman lawyers “on a confidential basis”, only to process them “with great interest”.

Subsequently, the Commission imposed a two-year cooling-off period to its top officials. To avoid conflicts of interest, former officials must apply for authorisation for their new activities, for which an ethics committee is consulted. But even this is not really serious. Günther Oettinger, the former Commissioner for Digitalisation and EU Budget, serves as an example. After the end of his term of office, he had 13 jobs approved by the acting Commission under the leadership of party colleague Ursula von der Leyen. Seven of them are merely honorary, says Oettinger. Even his paid work as a supervisory board member and economic advisor to other companies had “nothing to do with lobbying”, the ex-commissioner assures us. However, this is not verifiable. Six of the new employers and clients are officially registered in the lobby register, among them the audit and consulting group Deloitte. The company is one of the “big four”, the cartel of global auditors that the EU institutions have been struggling to regulate for many years – a lobbying case par excellence.

A man standing in front of a big screen with a blue presentationCredit: European Union
Former Commission President Barroso went on to serve as a figurehead executive at Goldman Sachs

This applies all the more to the international consulting firm Kekst CNC, of which Oettinger has been a member of the global advisory board since January. The Commission granted the authorisation only on the condition that the ex-Commissioner “shall not provide the benefit of any insights of a confidential or sensitive nature into policy, strategy or internal processes that he obtained during his terms of office” and he “shall not provide any advice on how Kekst CNC or its clients could directly or indirectly lobby the European Commission, even on matters for which he was not responsible in his former portfolios”. But this is exactly what the company’s core business is about. The former Commissioner is set to be a “sparring partner” for the Kekst CNC team “and will apply his great expertise to advise clients”, according to the press release. This gives him “the opportunity to pass on my experience and knowledge to consultants and clients”, Oettinger himself said, as reported by Politico.

In this respect, the Commission’s audit and conditions are not very credible, says Green MEP Daniel Freund, who, as the former head of the EU office of Transparency International, was once a lobbyist himself and knows the Brussels business only too well. At least with some of Oettinger’s new employers, it is obvious that they “want to secure exclusive access”.

The bad thing about this fraternisation of top civil servants with the economically powerful is not just the possible manipulation of legislation for private purposes and to the detriment of the common good.  What is really reprehensible is the damage to democracy. Because this disreputable changing of sides feeds into the false impression that politics, in general, can be bought. But this is precisely what drives voters to the anti-democrats on the right.

“What is really reprehensible is the damage to democracy.”

Harald Schumann

Fortunately, there are now many EU politicians who have recognised this danger. Freund and parliamentary colleagues have therefore committed themselves across party lines to the establishment of an “ethics authority”. This is to enforce, independently of the officeholders in all EU institutions, those ethical standards that have so far only existed on paper. As Vice-President of the EU Commission for the Rule of Law and Transparency, Vera Jourova sees this project as part of her mission. Even her boss, von der Leyen, expressly supported the project.

If this actually succeeds, then the EU will indeed become a model for governments and parliaments across Europe.

If you are interested in EU institutions and politics, you can also read about our ongoing investigation into the Council of the European Union.