The US is major funder of lobbying activities of Europe’s civil society organisations

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) lobbying in Brussels on issues including the climate and human rights are highly dependent on donors in the United States, a Follow the Money investigation shows. Foreign interference in the European Union is a sensitive issue since the news broke that Qatar used an NGO to bribe MEPs.

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What’s the news?

  • Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) lobbying the European Commission are highly dependent on donors in the United States.
  • To show how decision-making processes may be influenced, the European Union has created a transparency register that companies and civil society organisations must register with before receiving access to the European Commission or European Parliament.
  • This Transparency Register is riddled with mistakes and ambiguities, however, and in its current form seems unsuitable for tracking down unwanted intruders and agents.

Why is this important?

  • In Brussels, NGOs have been subject to intense criticism since December 2022, when suspicions surfaced that Qatar had been using an NGO to bribe MEPs. It is one of the reasons that the European Commission will be tabling a legislative proposal within a few weeks, intended to counter any unwanted influence.
  • This has led to the NGOs active in Brussels fearing that their already beleaguered reputation will take yet another hit. They would much prefer better enforcement of the rules related to the existing Transparency Register. 

How this was investigated

  • For this investigation, Follow the Money analysed the European Union’s Transparency Register, its Financial Transparency System, the public business register, the annual reports and website of the NGOs under investigation, and also their funders.
  • This article kicks off Tracking Europe’s most influential NGOs, a new series investigating the financial incentives driving the countless civil society organisations involved in European politics.
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Always a popular scapegoat, the European Union is often held responsible for anything and everything going wrong. Its reputation nosedived yet again in December 2022. It transpired that MEPs apparently had been bribed with suitcases full of money to put in a good word for Qatar, a Middle Eastern oil and gas empire.

In the aftermath of this corruption scandal which immediately became known as Qatarqate, accusations began to fly focusing on the countless non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in Brussels.

Just like companies, civil society organisations lobby European institutions in order to steer policy in their preferred direction. They lobby for human rights, the environment or for climate issues. They may have less to spend than the corporate lobby, but their representatives still manage to find a willing ear in Brussels, as they claim to promote the public good and wider interests.

One of these organisations, Fight Impunity (which besides fighting impunity, says it also promotes respect for international law), turned out to be the lynchpin in Qatargate.

It was founded by former Italian MEP Antonio Panzeri. He and his colleague Francesco Giorgi, also from Italy, were arrested for accepting money from Qatar, using Fight Impunity to facilitate this. Giorgi is in a relationship with Eva Kaili from Greece, a Social Democratic MEP who for years made strikingly positive statements about Qatar. She is another suspect in the investigation being conducted by Belgian authorities.

Fight Impunity’s involvement was gleefully pounced on by lobbyists and politicians with views that often run counter to those of NGOs.

Two months after the Qatargate story broke, the Christian Democratic MEP Markus Pieper grasped the opportunity and initiated the debate. ‘A small percentage of the civil society organisations is endangering the reputation of the entire group,’ he stated. ‘This is because it is unclear who is funding them, while they are able to come and go as they please in parliamentary buildings.’

Tarnished reputation

The German MEP Pieper had warned about the risks of civil society organisations before. He speculated about the need for stricter regulations in 2017. This was after an intended trade agreement – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – with the United States floundered, thanks in part to NGOs protesting its consequences. At the time, his criticism fell on deaf ears.

But the playing field has since changed.

In response to Russian hostility and spurred on by Qatargate, the European Commission is attempting to contest foreign influence from within, such as by requiring civil society organisations to open their financial books. It expects to publish a proposal on this on 31 May.

How much influence do NGOs have, and to what degree do they serve interests other than the public interest?

The NGOs consider this plan an all-out attack on them. They usually have to defend themselves against autocratic regimes and the accusations and innuendo of politicians like Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán – who accuses them of being a pawn of Hungarian-American businessman George Soros.

And now they suddenly feel that their reputation is being tarnished by the European Union. ‘We fear that legitimate civil society organisations will be stigmatised,’ says Carlotta Besozzi of Civil Society Europe, an interest group that wrote an urgent open letter to the European Union on behalf of 230 NGOs. 'Not only here in Europe, but also in other countries were their rights are at risk.'

Conspiracy theories

In order to gain a better understanding of the NGO playing field – and of the sly schemers among the idealist NGOs – Follow the Money has set out to establish who is funding the organisations engaged in influencing decision-making in Brussels.

How much influence do NGOs have, what is their agenda and to what degree do they also serve other agendas than the public interest? Is there any truth to the conspiracy theories claiming that NGOs are puppets of the likes of George Soros and Bill Gates?

Our investigatory method

This investigation is primarily focused on the Transparency Register of the European Commission in Brussels. All companies, interest groups and civil society organisations are required to register with this before receiving access to the European Commission.

We analysed the most recent data (financial year 2021) included in the register of the 978 registered civil society organisations that have had at least one meeting since 2019 with the European Commission under the presidency of Ursula von der Leyen.

We then selected the organisations that ended in the top 5 per cent with regard to at least one of the following four points: the number of meetings with the Commission; the number of employees working as a lobbyist; the total expenditure on lobbying costs; and the total budget of the organisation.

This resulted in a list of 128 organisations whose sources of income we investigated by studying their management, annual reports and financial accountability statements on their websites.

We used the Financial Transparency System – the database detailing all of the money flows from the European Commission to countries, companies and entities such as NGOs – in our research, as well as the business register of the Brussels Capital Region.

In addition, we studied stacks of annual reports of the funders of the NGOs included in our investigation.

And finally, we consulted experts on how influencing takes place in the European political sphere about our findings.

Read more Fold in

In this first part of a series on NGOs that wield influence on European decision-making processes, we have calculated what their primary funding sources are.

Foreign money for European values

The Czech human rights organisation European Values shows just how diverse the funding sources of NGOs can be. In 2021, donors donated just under 1 million euros intended for defending values like personal freedom, human dignity and equality. The organisation conducts research into covert interference by non-Western powers such as Russia and China, and also addresses issues like fake news and disinformation.

This mission dovetails with the new plans of the European Commission, which indeed also happens to be one of its funders. European Values provided this information itself in the Transparency Register, the database of organisations attempting to influence the European Union’s decision-making process and policies. For example, the Czech organisation received a small financial contribution for participating in the Black Sea Trust, a project promoting democratisation in the regions bordering the Black Sea.

Ironically though, this champion of European values is also strongly dependent on funding from outside the EU.

In 2021, the US State Department (the American ministry of foreign affairs) was by far the largest donor, responsible for about one third of European Value’s income. The second largest donor was the Czech government, followed by Taiwan, the island nation in the East China Sea which is not viewed as an independent state by many countries due to pressure from China.

Although it may not be highly unusual that Taiwan finds funding European Values’ mission worthwhile, it is remarkable. The Czech organisation’s raison d’etre is its critical attitude towards foreign influence. It seems aware of the contradiction. The website has a lengthy explanatory statement on its funding sources and its working method.

Meanwhile, our research has shown that this organisation is far from being an exception.

In 2021, registered NGOs received the most funding from Brussels.

But the US government provides almost as much in funding.

We also determined where the investigated NGOs’ funding parties were established.

Most of the private funding parties have their headquarters in the United States.

It often involves funds from philanthropic institutions like the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Open Societies Foundation founded by George Soros.

The Americans versus the Europeans versus Bill Gates

The European Commission not only funds organisations which are included in the Transparency Register. For instance, it subsidises NGO projects related to development cooperation or the environment.

If we look at the financial database of the entire EU, in 2021 some 2.3 billion euros can be seen being transferred to NGOs, comprising an average of 6 per cent of the entire budget that the European Commission get's to spend itself (and that isn't spend through for instance the member states, such as is the case with the agricultural budget).

In addition, large amounts of money flow from Member States to civil society, particularly from Germany and the Netherlands.

But the most generous funding party has yet to be mentioned: by far the largest donor to NGOs active in Europe is the American Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The man behind tech giant Microsoft and his ex-wife have made it their life’s mission to pour money into improving the world population’s living conditions.

The pair features in the Transparency Register as having donated a total of nearly 6.5 billion euros. Most of this money (6.4 billion), however, ends up with their own foundation, because it comes from a foundation-affiliated trust fund that manages Gates’ capital. Nevertheless, 73 million euros still flow from the Gates Foundation to other NGOs included in the register.

A conscious policy

For academics like Andreea Năstase, Assistant Professor in European Public Policy at Maastricht University, the Transparency Register contains valuable information. She studies lobbying in Brussels and it comes as no surprise to her that the European Commission is an important funder for NGOs.

According to her, it is a conscious policy to involve civil society in the European decision-making processes. ‘You can’t just be listening to the corporate lobbyists all the time, right? It’s not effective, it doesn’t lead to good policy, but it’s also not democratically legitimate. So, you need both sides.’

Năstase does find it striking, however, that so much money comes from the United States. ‘I would be worried about it if an organisation tends to be predominantly funded by a single American source. Then alarm bells should be ringing. If your funder base is very poor, depending on one or a few funders, it can affect your independence and autonomy, the way you operate.’

 The big, the powerful and the absent

In order to see where all that money ended up, we determined which NGO had the biggest budget to spend among those which had held at least one meeting with a European Commissioner since 2019. In addition to the Gates Foundation these were Doctors Without Borders, SOS Children’s Villages, Action Against Hunger, the International Rescue Committee, and The Pew Charitable Trusts in the United States (the fund behind the Pew Research Center, a think tank).

This does not mean that the organisations forking out the most are also the ones meeting with the European Commission the most often.

Organisations which all had more than 15 meetings with members of the European Commission were SGI Europe (representing employers and providers of services of general interest), the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), BEUC (the umbrella organisation for European consumer organizations), ClientEarth (an environmental organisation), Caritas (an aid organisation), the European Environmental Bureau (a climate coalition), and the controversial World Economic Forum.

Half of the organisations listed in the Transparency Register state that the interests they represent are the climate and the environment, while some 40 per cent focus on international cooperation, innovation and human rights.

It is important to note – in the context of discussing foreign influence – that Fight Impunity, the organisation that received money from Qatar, was never included in the register. This was possible because the organisation never conducted any meetings with members of the European Commission. Although it did meet with MEPs, the latter are generally not required to register their lobby contacts.

Another striking fact is that based on the information in the Transparency Register, NGOs don't seem to have received any income at all from countries like Russia and China, or from the Middle East or other controversial regions. Yet this isn't conclusive, especially as this kind of information isn't required to be enlisted.

The lobby watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory and environmental organisation Friends of the Earth – who were both major players in the fight against the TTIP trade agreement – both receive substantial funding from the Isvara Foundation, for example. As is the case with many foundations, this organisation is based in Switzerland. But the origin of the money is from elsewhere. As these NGOs state openly on their websites, the individual running this foundation is the wealthy Syrian-Lebanese businessman Ayman Allad, who is critical towards neoliberal politics and trade policies.

Imperfect register

Regarding the information that is requiered to enlist in the Transparency Register, we found it is often riddled with mistakes.

Generally speaking, the information submitted by NGOs and other lobby organisations is insufficiently checked. In 2021, for example, European Values stated that it had an operating budget totalling 53,000 euros. Yet in its own annual report, the Czech organisation reported nearly 1 million euros in income.

According to the register, the organisation also employed 43 lobbyists. When asked, however, their financial assistant told us that this was not true: the total number of people employed by the organisation was 43, none of whom were hired as a lobbyist. It should be noted that European Values is among the more transparent organisations.

Our investigation unearthed further problems as well:

  • The definition of an NGO is unclear, which means that organisations that actually lobby for corporate interests can also register as NGOs.
  • The definitions of costs in a general sense and of lobbying costs is unclear, which means that which budgets the NGOs have actually submitted is also ambiguous.
    According to the register, together they had almost 23 billion euros to spend in 2023. But to spend on what? Solely on their activities in the European Union? Or is this their budget for their projects across the world? The annual reports of the nearly 1000 NGOs we investigated show that just over 100 of them already have a total budget of 27 billion euros, far more than the 23 billion euros that were recorded in the register.
  • The information in the Transparency Register on the income sources of NGOs is incorrect or incomplete. For example, NGOs are required to state which donors have made donations of 10,000 euros or more, and which donors are responsible for at least 10 per cent of their budget. But according to our findings, around one third of the NGOs submitted no information about the source of their funding. Most of these also did not provide this information on their own websites.
  • Some of these NGOs provide incorrect information about their expenditures.
    To illustrate: according to the register, at least 24 NGOs spent more on lobbying costs in 2021 than they had to spend in total, according to the figures that they themselves submitted.

This begs the question just how effective the register actually is in tracking down objectionable meddlers in the European decision-making process.

This is all the more troubling since for-profit organisations, such as consultancies and legal firms, are not required to state who they are funded by in the Transparency Register.

With regards to this, Corporate Europe Observatory, an NGO concerned with determining the influence of various lobbies, points out that dubious regimes seldom use civil society organisations to promote their message and further their interests, preferring consultancies and PR agencies instead.

Polishing images

The United Arab Emirates, for example, likes to hire consultants and think tanks to portray them as pacific regional players. While Saudi Arabia had the public relations firm MSL Brussels quietly polish its image in order to come across as an attractive business partner.

Therefore, NGOs are calling for a transparency register whose rules are enforced better, but also for one in which more types of organisations have to account for themselves. This would require lobbying firms, consultancies and public relations agencies to also come clean about who funds them. ‘Take Qatargate, for instance. The organisation involved was not even included in the transparency register,’ says Carlotta Besozzi of Civil Society Europe, the NGO umbrella organisation.

A recently published analysis, commissioned by the European Parliament, also indicated that improving the Transparency Register is an important issue.

But in the end, Besozzi’s hope is for the Brussels culture to change entirely, with everyone considering it the norm to be open about their affairs. ‘Take the fact that MEPs are still not required to release their receipts. So why this specific focus on NGOs?’

This article kicks off our collection called ‘Tracking Europe’s most influential NGOs’. In coming months, we will be revealing exactly who is funding the civil society organisations and what their agenda is.

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