What is happening in the European Union, the European Commission and the European Council? What are their aims and ambitions, and where does the EU money go to? Read more
What is happening in the European Union, the European Commission and the European Council? What are their aims and ambitions, and where does the EU money go to?
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Europe's leaders wipe out their tracks by deleting e-mails and text messages
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From Huawei to Shell: corporate lobbies unimpededly recruit former EU Parliament staff
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How an old boy’s network hijacked Europe’s plan for a green future
Europe’s quest for more economic independence – and its pitfalls
Frans Timmermans: wielding power in the Brussels minefield
Prominent EU Commissioner gratefully accepted royal treatment in the Emirates
Cash for reforms? Hard choices yet to come for EU’s recovery fund
From Huawei to Shell: corporate lobbies unimpededly recruit former EU Parliament staff
The European Parliament presents hardly any obstacles to former MEP assistants who wish to become lobbyists. There are no consequences for former staff who disregard the duty to report new work for approval, leaving the Parliament unaware of conflicts of interest. Even if they move on to lobby on legislation that they were involved with as political staff, they often easily receive a lobby pass.
- Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have assistants who carry out a lot of the legislative work required. Many of the amendments to EU legislation proposed by MEPs are drafted by their assistants, who sometimes also join in the negotiations.
- These assistants can wield a great deal of influence in the Brussels policy arena. Their network and knowledge make them popular recruits for lobbying organisations.
- Assistants with over five years of experience who leave parliamentary employ are required to report any new work they acquire in the subsequent two years to the European Parliament. But Follow the Money has discovered that many disregard this rule and that the Parliament’s monitoring of adherence is poor.
- It has the option of imposing a temporary lobbying ban but hardly ever does so. When the Parliament did forbid a former assistant from lobbying MEPs, it was someone who had become a lobbyist for an environmental NGO.
She only briefly lacked access to the European Parliament in Brussels. In the autumn of 2021, Despina Manousos Laurent left her job as policy advisor to a Spanish MEP and had to hand in her access pass.
But just two months later, she could once again roam the meeting rooms and corridors of the glass-encased building. Not as an employee of the European Parliament though: she had become a lobbyist for Huawei.
This made Manousos the third former MEP assistant to be recruited by the Chinese tech company in the past five years.
Switching from the European Parliament to a lobbying firm is hardly an unusual move for political staff. Corporate lobbying firms, in particular, are sought-after employers, according to an investigation by Follow the Money based on data from the LobbyFacts and ParlTrack websites.
In the past ten years, 166 former MEP assistants began working as lobbyists in Brussels within two years of leaving the employ of the European Parliament. The vast majority became corporate lobbyists.
Some of them broke the rules for former parliamentary staff with impunity. These state that former MEP assistants, who have worked for over five years in that position, must subsequently request permission to take up new work in the next two years.
Investigation into Huawei
In Brussels, companies are eager to hire employees with good contacts within the European institutions. A former Huawei employee, who was willing to speak anonymously with Follow the Money, said that in recent years the company has been seeking better ways to further its interests with policymakers in Brussels.
This led Huawei to hire Valerio Ottati, for example. He has been lobbying for the company since the summer of 2021, after having worked as a policy advisor with the European Parliament for nearly a decade. ‘He was not a technical guy at all. He was hired for the connections that he could bring. He was arranging many meetings with MEPs and able to invite people to events.’
It recently transpired that his Greek-Finnish colleague Manousos is also a very capable networker. In March 2023, she joined other London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) alumni in a visit to engage in a ‘conversation’ with the Greek European Commissioner Margaritis Schinas, also an LSE alumnus.
The Commission claimed that it had no prior notice that the group of alumni included lobbyists, and that the meeting was ‘of a purely informative character’, allowing it to ‘play its [...] role informing an interested citizen group about the Commission and Union’s activities’. According to the Commission, Schinas ‘did not have any bilateral meetings with any of the participants’.
‘MEP assistants are an under-studied group in the Brussels Bubble’
Politico Europe writes that Huawei’s recruitment strategy in Brussels is subject to an investigation by the VSSE, the Belgian State Security Service. The VSSE is particularly interested in whether any Huawei lobbyists who were previously employed by EU institutions have any ties with the Chinese government.
The intelligence agency is unwilling to confirm or deny this. A Huawei spokesperson said: ‘We are unaware of any so-called investigations against our staff in Brussels.’
Invaluable to the corporate lobby
Since the Qatargate scandal – revolving around alleged bribery by Qatar and Morocco – broke, the issue of the integrity of MEPs and their relationships with lobbyists has become a prominent topic in the public debate in Brussels. The role of the MEP assistants has not received a great deal of attention, however, even though one of the suspects in the case – Francesco Giorgi – is just such a former APA (accredited parliamentary assistant), who once worked for Pier Antonio Panzeri, a former MEP and also a suspect.
Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad recently described how Giorgi probably tricked Moroccan activists. They were visiting Brussels for the nominations for a human rights prize, which no doubt left the government in Rabat disgruntled. Giorgi tried to convince them to retract their nomination and helped ‘unknown men’ to grill the activists about their activities.
This goes to show that the influence of MEP assistants outstrips their job description: for most of them the work involved is more than keeping track of their MEP’s appointments and fetching coffee. Many assistants play a key role in preparing European legislation. They draft the amendments that their MEPs submit and sometimes play a role in the negotiations with Member States and the Commission.
‘To my mind, assistants are the most important liaisons for lobbyists in the European Parliament,’ lobbyist Milos Labovic wrote in his book EU Superlobby: Winning in Brussels (2017).
Vicky Cann, a campaigner for the lobbying watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory, added: ‘MEP assistants are an under-studied group in the Brussels Bubble, yet some have a very detailed knowledge of EU files, invaluable for a corporate lobby group.’
In a conversation with Follow the Money, Mark MacGann also confirmed that companies are keen to hire former MEP assistants. MacGann became known as the Uber lobbyist turned whistleblower. Last year, he shared over 100,000 documents with journalists about his years with Uber: the Uber Files.
While he was at Uber, the company hired Fabian Ladda, who had worked for the European Parliament for six months. ‘Ladda was a very good lobbyist, but it was also his network in Brussels as a former assistant to a high profile MEP, Elmar Brok, which made him a valuable addition to the team,’ MacGann said.
If you manage to recruit an experienced former assistant as lobbyist, you not only gain access to their network, but also to specialist topical knowledge and an understanding of the complex EU machinery churning out rules. ‘It’s not just about who you know. I mean, the bigger your network, great, the more you’re valued to the private sector,’ he added.
It is just as important to master all of the complicated procedures, however. MacGann: ‘If you identify that MEP assistant who’s been working on, for example, the Legal Affairs Committee or the Internal Market Committee, you would pay good money to get that person in your team, because that’s very valuable experience.’
Join me on the dark side
Former assistant Quentin Deschandelliers is aware of this too. ‘Depending on how much your MEP trusts you and how much he is a hands-on kind of MEP, etc., you can be pretty influential on the things you work on. That’s one of the things that I personally found interesting as an MEP assistant. The work you do can matter. You can have an impact on that.’
Deschandelliers has won a degree of fame in Brussels with his alter ego: MEP Assistant. On Twitter, he takes a humorous approach to informing his 29,000 followers about how the EU works.
‘Lobbying is actually something that is pretty essential to democracy’
A decade ago, Deschandelliers began a blog on Tumblr, a platform where he primarily posts GIFs. In 2013 the self-confessed Star Wars fan used one of Darth Vader. Deschandelliers captioned a well-known film clip of Darth Vader, his fist balled, proclaiming ‘If only you knew the power of the Dark Side’, with the line: ‘When I tell my lobbyist friend that I don’t want to become a lobbyist once I’ll leave the Parliament.’
By now, Deschandelliers has himself become a lobbyist for the Federation of European Publishers. According to him, the negative connotations the job has are undeserved. ‘I consider that lobbying is actually something that is pretty essential to democracy. I don’t feel that becoming a lobbyist is joining the dark side,’ he told Follow the Money.
It should come as no surprise that assistants – often in their twenties or thirties – reach a point where they seek out a fresh step in their careers. Political staff are often on short-term contracts. In addition, a job linked directly to the career of a politician will always have its precarious aspects. Deschandelliers: ‘If at the end of the mandate the MEP does not come back or he resigns or whatever, you don’t have a job anymore.’
Follow the Money did indeed find 45 cases where MEP assistants had left parliamentary employ either in the month that elections took place or shortly thereafter. However, most (121) actually switched to a lobbyist job mid-term, in the five years between elections.
Other factors that may play a role in premature departures are work pressure, how well an assistant gets on with their MEP and the latter’s behaviour. According to a former assistant who wishes to remain anonymous: ‘Some MEPs harass their assistants with text messages in the middle of the night, demanding something be done by 6 a.m. the next morning.’
Anyone leaving the Parliament who wishes to stay in Brussels can seek employment at another EU institution. Or they can become a lobbyist.
Conflicts of interest
However understandable the choice may be for any individual, switching to the private sector could harm the interests of the European Parliament or of European citizens. The danger exists that the lobbying organisations with the most money will lure staff with the most extensive networks and greatest knowledge. There is also the risk of conflicts of interest, whether real or perceived: is someone still in the public sector already prioritising the private interests of their future employer?
The EU acknowledges these risks and has set rules for departing staff.
Former European Commission officials, for instance, are required to seek permission for new jobs up until two years after leaving. The Commission can prohibit the new job or allow it under the condition of a temporary lobbying ban, for example when someone becomes a lobbyist in the same policy field as they worked in as a European official.
This rule only applies to MEP assistants who were employed for five years or more. According to a spokesperson, this minimum period was chosen to coincide with MEPs’ five-year parliamentary terms, but there is no clear justification for this. As a consequence, this rule applies to a quarter of the over 2000 APAs currently employed by the European Parliament.
So someone who has worked for four years and eleven months is not required to report a new job as lobbyist. But anyone who has worked for less than five years can also have built a good network or landed an important position.
Five years of experience is ideal, according to whistleblower and former Uber lobbyist MacGann. ‘But it doesn’t have to be five years. If somebody was an MEP assistant for two-and-a-half to three years, but at a key position, that could give you the experience that’s worth 15 years.’ He thinks that the Parliament should consider adapting the rules and make them apply to former staff with over two-and-a-half years’ experience. ‘[T]hat allows you to catch more heavyweights.’
Follow the Money found numerous examples of assistants who switched from Parliament to a lobbying job where the work topics overlapped.
Take Tsjerk Terpstra, for example, an assistant to fellow Dutchman Jan Huitema (VVD), who was involved with the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development. A month after leaving parliamentary employ, he became a lobbyist in Brussels for LTO Nederland, the Dutch trade organisation for farmers and horticulturists. As a policy advisor to a British MEP, the Greek Kleopatra Sidiropoulou was also primarily concerned with agriculture. She subsequently became secretary-general of the European Council of Young Farmers (CEJA).
Until late 2017, Johannes Weber was actively engaged in the parliamentary committee on food safety, before beginning work as a lobbyist for food behemoth Nestlé just a month later. From one month to the next, Ute Schmaltz switched from working for the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs to a job as lobbyist for Commerzbank.
None were required to request permission from the European Parliament. There are, however, individuals who should have done so but who failed to do so, claiming they were unaware they had to (see box).
MEP assistants with more than five years of experience are required to report new jobs up until two years after their departure. Eight former assistants to whom this applied told Follow the Money that they never knew that this was the case.
This includes the former assistant and Star Wars fan Deschandelliers. He worked for the Parliament for six years, including on the new European copyright rules. Six months after leaving, he began working as a lobbyist for the European umbrella organisation for publishers in early 2020. He never reported this job to the Parliament.
‘Usually I respect the rules,’ Deschandelliers said. ‘Now I find myself having broken rules that I had no idea about. I blame the Parliament for this, as it did not give us the information.’
VCI, the German trade association for the chemical industry, hired Anna Lena Bergmann in 2022; she should have requested permission from Parliament to take the job. VCI said that this ‘inadvertently’ had not happened, ‘which we regret’.
In the same year, Umberto Gambini did not request permission for his job as a lobbyist at an agency called Avisa Partners, after having worked for the Parliament for 15 years. ‘I have never heard about this rule, neither directly nor indirectly. The same counts for all former colleagues I contacted.’ Gambini sent an intranet page with general information for assistants and a welcome leaflet in which the rule indeed cannot be found.
Yet on its public website, the Parliament does have a special page on appropriate behaviour where leaflets can actually be found that state the rule.
According to the Parliament, departing assistants are also reminded of their duty to report. There has been a change since September 2022, however: this reminder is now sent automatically when the HR system ‘sees’ that an assistant’s contract is about to expire. But according to the Parliament, such a reminder was also ‘systematically’ sent when these were still dispatched by parliamentary staff.
In any case, without doubt there are more former assistants who neglected to have their new jobs checked for possible conflicts of interest. According to the Parliament, in the past ten years they received 69 requests from former assistants for permission to start a new job. Yet Follow the Money managed to find 71 cases where permission was required. And this is without taking anyone into account who sought work that did not require a lobby pass, but did require permission.
In its response, the Parliament lays all responsibility for adhering to the duty to report on the former staff and the organisations lobbying EU institutions. The latter are required to ensure that any former EU employees that they hire adhere to these rules.
Yet the Parliament could prevent anyone who has forgotten the rule from lobbying without permission. When Deschandelliers requested the European Parliament to provide him with an access pass for his new lobbying work, six months after having left the European Parliament’s employ, he had no difficulty acquiring the pass. Deschandelliers: ‘[...] they could have said: “Oh, you used to be an assistant, have you asked permission for this new job?” But no one did.’
When a lobby pass is requested, no one checks whether someone is a former parliamentary employee or worked for another EU institution. This meant that in 2015 Karl Ryan, a newly hired Google lobbyist, could receive an access pass from the European Parliament, even though he had not yet received permission to take that job from his former employer, the European Ombudsman.
Revolving door in full spin
If a former employee’s job is related to what they did in the last three years of their employment, EU institutions can prohibit the new job. The European Parliament has never done so in the past ten years.
As a result, a parliamentary policy advisor who worked on trade and sustainability topics became a lobbyist for Facebook, only to return to the Parliament a year later as a policy advisor on digital affairs, before moving on to Twitter two years later to work as a lobbyist.
In another case, a parliamentary advisor on aviation and aerospace, who had been employed for eight years, almost immediately received a lobby pass after becoming a lobbyist for ASD Europe, an aviation and aerospace trade organisation.
And then there was the assistant to the centre-right Bulgarian MEP Eva Maydell, who was working on new cybersecurity rules one month, only to receive a lobby pass the following month, to be used in her new job as digital economy advisor for BusinessEurope, the European lobbying organisation for employers.
‘Unproportionate compared to other cases’
The experienced former assistant Judit Baumholczer also received a lobby pass from the European Parliament. She was a policy advisor to MEP Miriam Dalli and claims that she played a ‘central role’ in drafting the position of the Social Democratic group with regard to the European Green Deal and ‘higher’ climate ambitions for 2030.
A year after leaving the Parliament, Baumholczer became a lobbyist for Shell.
According to a spokesperson for the oil and gas company, Baumholczer reported her new job to the Parliament as required and received permission. The Parliament does not comment on individual cases.
Temporary lobbying ban
Besides either refusing or granting permission, the European Parliament has a provisional option as well. It can grant permission for a new job on the condition of a temporary lobbying ban.
When asked about this option, the Parliament stated that six former assistants received such a ban in the past ten years. These six were not allowed to represent the interests of their new employers in the European Parliament for 12 to 24 months.
The Parliament was not prepared to divulge who they were. However, Follow the Money was able to identify one of them thanks to its sources.
The person in question was a former assistant to a Social Democrat MEP who – like Baumholczer’s boss Miriam Dalli – was active in the parliamentary environmental committee. This individual, who would like to remain anonymous, is considering appealing the lobbying ban. ‘I think generally it’s a good thing that there are restrictions for outgoing assistants of MEPs. But the restrictions issued on me are unproportionate when you compare them to other cases.’
Without any further explanation, the former assistant was informed that they were not allowed to lobby the European Parliament on behalf of their new employer for 18 months.
To put this 18-month period in perspective: subsequent to Qatargate, MEPs set themselves a cooling-off period of six months.
Considering that the Shell lobbyist Baumholczer received a lobby pass, no questions asked, being blacklisted for 18 months does seem over the top, especially taking the fact into account that the former assistant moved away from Brussels as well. Perhaps even more striking is that the new employer is not even a commercial company but an environmental NGO.
Follow the Money combined two datasets for this article. The first comprises names of people who were registered on the European Parliament website as an MEP assistant, sometime in the past ten years. The Parliament deletes the names of assistants when they change jobs. These data are, however, secured by the ParlTrack website.
The second dataset is a list of names of people who were ever included in the EU lobby register as recipients of a lobby pass. These data were made available by the LobbyFacts website, who copied these data from the official Transparency Register. The data included in the register are supplied by the lobbying organisations themselves.
By establishing which names occur in both datasets, a list of 492 individuals was compiled who may have been an assistant as well as a lobbyist. Some names featured multiple times, which was corrected. Each of these name matches was then checked to establish whether the same individual was concerned.
Sometimes this revealed that two different people happened to share the same name. Identities were almost always confirmed by finding a CV on LinkedIn. If any doubts remained, the name was disregarded. The names of individuals who only worked as European Parliament trainees or interns were also deleted.
The final criterion was to only include former assistants who found a new job as a lobbyist within two years of leaving parliamentary employ. This two-year period was chosen because it coincides with how long some former assistants are required to submit new jobs to the Parliament for approval. Sometimes additional research led to the discovery of an assistant who met the criteria but who was not included in the original dataset; this name was then added.
All of the companies and individuals mentioned in this article were asked to comment.
LobbyFacts and ParlTrack providing their data is greatly appreciated. I would also like to thank my FTM colleagues Ada Homolová, Johan Schuijt and especially Tom Claessens for processing the data to make them more comprehensible.