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HOWDY. Welcome to this week’s edition of EU Influence, where we are sending virtual courage to everyone slogging through the AI Act trilogues. Saturday will mark the one-year anniversary of Qatargate, the storyline that ruined EU Influence’s favorite party (your author dashed off in the middle of POLITICO’s annual staff party to try to catch the police raids at the Parliament, without success) and prompted a soul-searching of the influence and political sectors in Brussels (with underwhelming results). This week’s newsletter looks back at both the scandal and the attempted ethics reforms — but we’ve also got spicy updates on Hungary, AmCham and more.
ON THE RECORD
QATARGATE FILES TOP QUOTES: As my colleagues roll out their top findings from troves of leaked police files, we’ve found ourselves chuckling at some lines that sound like they could have come from many a run-of-the-mill lobbyist.
Bribery (as alleged) isn’t lobbying: That’s for sure. But ex-MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri and parliamentary assistant Francesco Giorgi both engaged in some of the sales techniques and self-talk common to legal public affairs players.
Side hustles and revolving doors: “The European Parliament is an exceptional vantage point, especially for those dealing with other countries…There are always requests looking for an offer.”
— Francesco Giorgi, according to notes found by police.
Claiming credit for outcomes that would have happened anyway: “It relied on the ignorance of how Parliament works.”
— Giorgi, in statements to police.
Really, we’re making the client better too! “I give you a hand, and you make reforms…Otherwise, your country won’t be marketable with regards to Europe.”
— Pier Antonio Panzeri, to Qatari officials, as recounted to police.
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MIXED INTERPRETATIONS BODE ILL FOR ENFORCEMENT: In the wake of Qatargate, Parliament President Roberta Metsola pledged an end to business as usual. That included limiting what types of business MEPs can do on the side. Yet EU lawmakers are already at odds over just how comprehensive the new ban on lobbying by MEPs is, calling into question whether it will ever be enforced.
MEPs voted to update the language restricting their own lobbying behavior from that on the left to that on the right.
A TALE OF TWO VOTES: Back in July, a majority of MEPs called for an even broader ban on side jobs — in a nonbinding resolution. Yet they rejected a similarly phrased amendment to their binding rule changes last month.
Nonbinding, adopted: A narrow majority of MEPs backed an amendment to a nonbinding resolution on fighting foreign interference — also explicitly in response to Qatargate:
Binding, rejected: Greens and Left MEPs put forward this amendment to a draft report from the Constitutional Affairs Committee (AFCO), which failed:
How did this play out? The rules change vote needed to meet a higher threshold for passage. But more fundamentally, nearly 70 MEPs who voted in favor of the nonbinding side jobs ban voted against the binding provision in September. These included Renew Chair Stéphane Séjourné, the Swedish delegation of the European People’s Party, and the Spanish Renew delegation, among others — as well as the majority of European Conservatives and Reformists.
EU Influence wrote to most of the vote-flipping MEPs, either individually or via group spokespeople, to understand their thinking. Below are collated responses.
EXPLANATION 1: We’re banning MEP lobbying, what more do you want from us?
Most of the MEPs dismissed the suggestion that there was any inconsistency. They do think paid lobbying activities should be banned, and so they voted for that in the nonbinding resolution in July. Then, given the choice of different types of wording, they opted to ban “paid lobbying activities directly linked to EU decisionmaking” — the language in the original, instead of the more elaborate Green/Left version.
Open to interpretation: Supporters of both formulations argue that theirs comes with fewer loopholes.
Greens/Left thinking: “There’s a difference between direct lobbying and getting paid by a registered lobby organisation,” said MEP Daniel Freund, the Green sponsor, in a statement. “The adopted rule leaves loopholes as big as a barn door.” By explicitly including a range of other tasks like consulting in the definition of lobbying, backers were trying to rule out behind-the-scenes advising by MEPs.
Renew thinking … and debate: The Greens/Left wording “makes a list of prohibited tasks and subjects which limits the scope of the ban,” said Spanish Renew MEP Izaskun Bilbao Barandica.
That’s the line most — but not all — in Renew decided to run with. Several replies referred to intense debate within the group.
EXPLANATION 2: The July side gig ban was nonbinding, and we wanted to make a point.
MEPs said they liked elements of the nonbinding July amendment to ban paid gigs for entities in the Transparency Register. “We supported the intentions” of that amendment, said a statement from Dutch EPP MEP Tom Berendsen’s office.
Cláudia Monteiro de Aguiar, an EPP MEP from Portugal, said she wanted to endorse the need to “avoid potential conflicts of interest in the performance of their mandate.”
Quiet part out loud: Michael Strauss, an ECR spokesperson, acknowledged that the specifics just weren’t as important for the summer vote — most ECR MEPs backed the measure “to demonstrate our opposition to paid lobbying by MEPs” and reject conflicts of interest. “These factors tipped the balance in the decision to support this nonlegislative text.”
EXPLANATION 3: There was a broad sense that winning a big majority on the overall package of rules changes would be an important political statement. EPP support was already in serious doubt after the center-right rejected the committee version. Several MEPs from both EPP and Renew said they didn’t want to disrupt a hard-won compromise by backing the Greens/Left measure.
ALSO NOTED — RIGHT-WING REVERSAL: Interestingly, Identity and Democracy rejected the July side job ban, but voted with Socialists and Democrats, Greens and The Left to back the binding version.
ID MEPs saw the summertime recommendations on fighting foreign interference as “a direct attack on our political group,” said German ID MEP Gunnar Beck. “We were therefore reluctant to support many of the amendments, despite their good intentions.”
The binding rule changes were “more balanced, politically neutral and to the point,” he added. “We firmly support ambitious transparency requirements” for MEPs, including explicit bans on consulting.
BOTTOM LINE PROBLEM NO. 1: EU Influence can see both points about which formulation is more comprehensive. Keeping the definition open, without a reference to the Transparency Register, could mean a broader ban. On the other hand, as The Left chief Manon Aubry put it to us, now it’s up to the Parliament president to decide whether something is “directly linked” to EU decision-making. If MEPs aren’t clear on the meaning of the rules, how can they follow or enforce them?
BOTTOM LINE PROBLEM NO. 2: Parliament’s soft power comes from its nonbinding resolutions. If MEPs are endorsing wording that they don’t fully agree with, just because they like the “intentions,” what should the rest of us make of these statements?
BUDAPEST PLANS TO HOST A TOTALLY NORMAL COUNCIL PRESIDENCY: Sure, Viktor Orbán is in the midst of his worst standoff ever with other EU leaders over Ukraine. But when it comes to Hungary’s Council presidency, in the second half of next year, you should feel confident that everything is in experienced hands, said Zoltán Kovács, Budapest’s longstanding head of public diplomacy.
Been there, done that: Speaking to reporters (including POLITICO’s Barbara Moens) in Brussels on Monday, Kovács noted that Orbán was in charge during Hungary’s last Council presidency back in 2011, making this a rare repeat performance with the same team.
Big issue: While it’s too early to predict other issues, Kovács said, the “institutional transition” will consume the presidency, which starts shortly after the European Parliament elections in June.
Let the bookings begin: The Várkert Bazár will be the main venue for Council happenings in Budapest. Kovács said they’re at work refurbishing a press center 50 meters away.
Sizzling summer: Kovács predicted five or six “important meetings” in July, with a busy September and October as well.
In the neighborhood: An informal meeting of the community is likely in late September, and a Western Balkans summit is also on the agenda.
On the record about being on the record: “For the past 14 years, I’m living my life in a way that any word and any sentence I’m going to use here is really responsible. I do have the mandate for it. And I know…the limits of what I am supposed to say and how I’m supposed to say it,” Kovács said, sagely.
WASHINGTON STRATEGY: One of the lobbyists hired by Budapest to promote Orbán’s government in the U.S. recently updated his filing about that client in the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act database.
Shoring up the right flank: The Embassy of Hungary paid David Reaboi, through his consultancy Strategic Improvisation, $35,000 over 2020 and 2021 to “generate positive” and “combat negative” media coverage of Hungary in the U.S. Yet, according to a media outreach log, that appears to have meant primarily engaging with conservative journalists.
Read more: Hungarian investigative journalist Zalán Zubor recently took a deep look at FARA filings on Hungary, in English at VSquare.
HOW TO KILL BILLS: Fake news and personal attacks: How the political right took down Europe’s green agenda, by Bartosz Brzeziński and Louise Guillot.
BAD MEDICINE, GREAT YARN: Big Pharma lobbied MEP lovers days before drugs study was pulled offline, by Carlo Martuscelli.
AMERICAN (CHAMBER) ELECTION
AMCHAMEU CHAIR RACE WRAPS UP: We’re about halfway through the voting period for the next board of the American Chamber of Commerce to the EU, and the stakes feel higher than usual this time: With all the talk in Europe about strategic autonomy and anger about the Inflation Reduction Act — not to mention potential upheaval in elections on both sides of the Atlantic next year — corporate diplomacy could be an even bigger preoccupation for U.S. businesses.
Members vote: That’s the context in this year’s race to replace the outgoing chair of AmChamEU, Johnson & Johnson’s Zeger Vercouteren. Voting kicked off after the last plenary on November 28, with each of the association’s approximately 160 members getting one vote.
The candidates are:
— Liam Benham, president for EU, NATO and government affairs Europe at Boeing.
— Julie Vermooten, executive director of Europe public policy and government relations at MSD.
The issues: This is a schmoozers’ contest, of course, with the external climate colliding with the internal politics of a big, member-driven organization. In conversations with EU Influence, Benham made a steady-hand pitch, while Vermooten pressed a subtle change-agent line.
Benham, a Brit turned Belgian, stressed his 18 years working with American companies (including IBM and Ford), his “unrivaled commitment to the transatlantic relationship” and his record built over two stints on AmCham’s board, including as chair of the policy group. “This is not my first rodeo,” he said.
Vermooten, chair of AmCham’s agri-food committee, talks about “building the AmCham of tomorrow, today” by updating its corporate organization. Though her Brussels experience is heavier on European association work, the Dutch national touts her family ties to the U.S. in campaign materials. And while Vermooten stresses her credentials, she also notes that men have helmed AmChamEU’s board for decades.
RESULTS NEXT WEEK: Voting closes at 6 p.m. on Monday. Results will be announced on Tuesday, said AmCham EU CEO Susan Danger.
BELGIAN COUNCIL PRESIDENCY
WHEN BRUSSELS RUNS BRUSSELS: POLITICO’s complete guide to the Belgian Council presidency just dropped, including a guide to key files, a look-ahead to Belgium’s national elections, and an introduction to the country’s top tech bro: Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.
Speaking of bros: There’s still a disproportionate number of men in the ranks of Belgium’s diplomatic corps. Read more.
YOUTUBE — INFLUENCING WITH INFLUENCERS: YouTube invited the EU bubble to an exclusive event at the Meet District on Tuesday to “celebrate” the U.S. tech giant’s impact on the European cultural economy.
Stars and drinks: After serving Youtube-logo-branded cocktails, the Google subsidiary moved the crowd of EU politics nerds into a small auditorium to admire the Gardiner Brothers, a duo of viral Irish tap-dancers; Bas Tietema, a YouTube cycling sensation; and French pop singer Jain (more used to summer festivals than an awkward, seated and mostly suit-clad crowd hesitating to stand up and dance).
Selfie time, selfless contribution? Jain was then spotted taking photos with some tech lobbyists, including some who brought their kids along. YouTube’s spokesperson told POLITICO’s Clothilde Goujard he didn’t know if the celebrities had been paid to come, but that most importantly they came to share their love for YouTube.
Can’t skip this ad: In less subtle lobbying, Pedro Pina, VP for YouTube EMEA, touted for nearly 12 minutes straight the benefits of the “largest stage on earth” for Europe and the importance of artificial intelligence for the platform.“YouTube has been part of the creative economy in the European Union for the longest period of time,” he said before the tap-dancing performance.
LOBBYING — THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT: Lanzcape is a new “mobile-first” tool joining the crowded legislative tracking space. The conceit: Helping lobbyists follow relevant files on their phones, with advice about what they should be doing, and when, to influence the outcome. Founded by Michel Ehrlich, Alan Hardacre, and Paul Shotton, Lanzcape will soon be available in invite-only beta, focusing on the “process and timeline for setting the next Commission’s political priorities.”
LOBBYISTS LOBBY BOARD UPDATES: Athenora Consulting‘s Natacha Clarac and Kellen‘s Marco Baldoli joined the board of the Society of European Affairs Professionals (SEAP). Jürgen Noack joined the SEAP staff as association director.
SOLAR LOBBY TAKES HEAT OVER FIRING: A Belgian labor court has ruled that SolarPower Europe, the industry’s main lobby in Brussels, illegally dismissed an employee based on her health status, Federica Di Sario reports.
Hefty fines: The court ordered the lobby to pay the employee, who was identified as “Mrs C.” in the ruling, €54,756.72 in compensation — the equivalent of six months of salary — plus an additional €35,802.51 penalty for unreasonable dismissal, as well as other costs.
Double whammy: The verdict, reached in early November, came after the employee sued the solar lobbying group, claiming she had been fired with no warning shortly after being diagnosed with a long-term and potentially debilitating illness. SolarPower Europe said the dismissal was carried out “on the basis of objective grounds related to performance and non-compliance” and intends to appeal.
— André Paula Santos has switched jobs to become head of EU policy at Nuseed. He used to work at the EBB European Biodiesel Board.
CONSULTING & COMMS
— Peter Beckett (also known for his work for ride-hailing and food delivery company Bolt) and Agata Nowacka have founded a new public affairs agency called three six one. It’s named after the number of the MEPs you need for a majority in the new Parliament. (Will they change the name of the company if the number of MEPs changes?)
— Considerati, a legal and public affairs consultancy, will open a new office in Brussels led by Cornelia Kutterer as its managing director as of January 1. She was previously with Microsoft.
— Lur Fernández Salinas will join CONCORD as AidWatch adviser as of December 11. She previously worked at the Council of European Municipalities and Regions.
— Eglantine Desautel has been appointed the chief executive officer of EuroCTP, having previously worked at Euronext.
— Timo Pentner is the new chief technology officer of EuroCTP, joining from CerQlar.
— Marcin Rodzinka-Verhelle, currently with the Standing Committee of European Doctors (CPME), will become an APA on health questions for the Luxembourgish MEP Tilly Metz as of January 1. He’ll replace Alice Bustin.
— Alexandra Schirmer joined COCIR, the association representing the medical imaging, health ICT and electromedical industries, as international affairs manager. She was previously with the European Commission’s DG TRADE.
— François Meyer joined FIPRA as a special adviser on health technology assessment (HTA). He used to work at the French Medicines Agency.
— Xavier Gagey, CEO of the Pochet Group, has been elected as a chairman for the Flaconnage Board of Directors at FEVE, the European federation of glass packaging makers. He is taking over from Laurent Zuber of SGD Pharma.
— Steve Claus has been promoted to secretary general at APEAL (the Association of European Producers of Steel for Packaging). He replaces Alexis Van Maercke.
— Tom Vöge, formerly with EUCOBAT, has joined the battery processor Gemeinsames Rücknahmesystem Servicegesellschaft mbH’s Brussels office as director of public policy.
— Hanna Ojanen has been promoted to head of carbon markets and policy at Carbo Culture. She was previously with Negative Emissions Platforms.
THANKS TO: Clothilde Goujard, Barbara Moens, Pieter Haeck, Louise Guillot, Carlo Martuscelli, Eddy Wax, Elisa Braun, Gian Volpicelli and especially Ketrin Jochecová; web producer Dato Parulava and my editor Paul Dallison.
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