International Newsletter of the HATVP – February 2022
In February 2022, journalists highlighted the European Commission’s lack of transparency regarding the funds allocated to the EU’s recovery plan.
The NGOs Transparency International and Access Info Europe raised concerns about potential flaws in the EU’s Transparency register for lobbyists.
In South Africa, a second report highlighted endemic public sector corruption and recommended that legislation be passed against the abuse of power. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised questions about the risks of possible interference by the “revolving door” network of former European or EU Member State politicians and officials joining private groups in certain third countries.
The European Parliament’s recommendation on corruption and human rights calls on the Commission to adopt a comprehensive anti-corruption strategy. The report highlights the measures taken by many Member States to prevent the abuse of influence and corruption of legislators and officials, including former officials, but notes the sometimes partial application of these rules and the lack of harmonisation at EU level. The recommendation also calls for strict standards for employed senior officials and elected representatives holding positions in public service or public office, in order to harmonise the rules and their application at EU level by means of a strong monitoring system. The recommendation calls for anti-corruption to be included as a priority in the pre-accession negotiations and criteria, and for the resources allocated to it to be strengthened, including those of anti-corruption bodies. Finally, the report recommends that the EU should become a full member of GRECO and no longer be an observer.
Investigative journalists from the independent Dutch news platform Follow the Money have criticised the European Commission’s lack of transparency after they encountered obstacles in accessing some documents related to the European Union Recovery Plan (NextGenerationEU). The institution refused to disclose documents on the preparation of the economic recovery plans of 15 Member States, even though the European regulation regarding public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents provides for a right of access, in principle, to the institutions’ documents. Established in July 2020 with €723.8 billion, the Recovery Plan is an instrument of solidarity to respond to the pandemic and facilitate recovery and resilience (RRF). Almost €338 billion will be paid out in grants to Member States (including €40 billion to France), with the remainder available in the form of optional low-interest loans. (Contexte, 14 February 2022)
The NGOs Transparency International and Access Info Europe have identified potential flaws in the new European register requirements for lobbyists. The latest updates would have allowed trade federations, established as associations, to undervalue their annual budget and expenditure on lobbying, creating inequalities with non-governmental organisations. NGOs are required to declare their major donors as well as grants received from foundations, the government and the European Union. (Contexte, 3 February 2022)
An investigation by the daily newspaper Libération reveals conflicts of interest and unethical practices within the European Court of Auditors, notably concerning its President and former German conservative MEP Klaus-Heiner Lehne. The revelations concern the private use of professional resources made available to the President, who has also been registered with the Düsseldorf Bar Association since 2014. In principle, such a practice is incompatible with the requirement for members of the Court of Auditors to be independent. The investigation also revealed that other members of the institution performed their duties outside the Grand Duchy while receiving the expatriation allowance, which amounts to 15% of their allowances. However, the European Court of Auditors is considering revising its code of conduct to include the need to reside in Luxembourg. (Contexte, 9 February 2022)
The second part of Justice Raymond Zondo’s Commission report into public sector corruption in South Africa during former President Jacob Zuma’s tenure (2008-2019) was handed over to current President Cyril Ramaphosa. Jacob Zuma refused to answer the Commission’s questions, being portrayed as the “antithesis of accountability” in the words of the report and was given a 15-month prison sentence. The report recommends adopting a law against the abuse of power, so that it is punishable by 20 years in prison and a fine of €1.2 million.
In September 2021, a group of doctors and scientists in the United States requested access to the documents on which the US administration had based its decision to allow the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine to be marketed in the country. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officially replied that it would take 55 years to comply with this request for all the documents, citing a lack of resources to quickly process a request for 329,000 pages with sensitive data to be anonymised. Texas federal judge Mark Pittman considered this request for transparency “of paramount public importance” and ruled that the FDA should provide the group with at least 55,000 pages of the requested documents per month, ensuring that they are all available by the end of the summer. (Reuters, 26 January 2022)
In China, the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection expelled the former party secretary, Zhou Jiangyong of Hangzhou city, from the party and dismissed him for corruption. Zhou Jiangyong’s expulsion comes after he was arrested in August 2021 for “serious violations of discipline and laws” and having “accepted huge amounts of property, in collaboration with his family”. State broadcaster CCTV aired a documentary revealing unreasonable financial transactions by companies on behalf of Zhou Jiangyong’s brother in exchange for access to cheap land. Hangzhou is also home to the headquarters of online retail giant Alibaba, whose financial subsidiary Ant Group had a stake in Zhou Jiangyong’s company. Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, the party’s disciplinary commission has been campaigning against corruption in the country and has recently focused on regulating digital platforms in sectors such as e-commerce, and online finance and education. Alibaba has been fined €2.3 billion and Chinese online retailer Meituan 456 million, both for abuse of a dominant position. (Le Monde, 2 February 2022)
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in violation of international law and the United Nations Charter, has brought Europe into a period of uncertainty. It has also brought to the forefront questions about the risks of interference by the “revolving door” network of former European or EU Member State politicians and officials working for leading private groups in certain third countries. This is particularly true of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Rosneft (Russia’s largest oil group) and of the Shareholders’ Committee of Nord Stream 2, the Russian-German gas pipeline also built by Gazprom. This is also the case of the former Austrian foreign affairs minister, who was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Russian oil group Rosneft, and the former French Prime Minister, François Fillon, who joined the Russian petrochemical group Sibur in December 2021. The question of creating a European public affairs authority to monitor career transition is once again forcefully raised in the current geopolitical context. (Le Monde, 25 February 2022)
In Spain, Pablo Casado, President of the Popular Party (PP) and Isabel Di Díaz Ayuso, President of the autonomous region of Madrid, are battling over the future presidency of the party, shortly after a regional election in Castile. Pablo Casado has called for an investigation into corruption involving the brother of Isabel Díaz Ayuso, who allegedly received a commission of around €280,000 from a contract for the purchase of FFP2 and FFP3 masks, awarded by the Madrid regional executive during the first wave of Covid-19. The autonomous region of Madrid recognises the existence of this commission, but claims it is completely legal. Isabel Díaz Ayuso in turn accuses the President of her party of espionage and trying to discredit her. The Popular Party’s MPs and several regional executives called for Pablo Casado’s resignation, and for an extraordinary congress to be held. Parliamentary elections are to be held no later than July 2023 in the country. (Courrier international, 18 February 2022)
The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has heard submissions from Christophe Meyer, the lawyer of Raphaël Halet, on the “Luxleaks” tax evasion case and will give its decision in several months. Raphaël Halet was fined €1,000 in Luxembourg for having disclosed 16 documents to the French TV programme “Cash Investigation” in 2013 concerning the Luxembourg consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), for which he was working. He wanted to expose the “tax rulings”, a practice that allowed multinational companies to benefit from advantageous conditions granted by the Luxembourg tax authorities. Maître Meyer stressed the “essential role of whistleblowers against private interests” and Raphaël Halet is supported by several NGOs defending whistleblowers and tax transparency. In January, Luxembourg also prepared a draft law to transpose into national law the European Directive on the protection of persons who report breaches of Union law. (Le Quotidien, 3 February 2022)
The Swedish company Ericsson, the international leader in the telecommunications market, is suspected by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) of corruption, conflicts of interest, fraud and embezzlement, and is facing accusations of indirectly financing militias and jihadists in Iraq in an investigation called “The Ericsson List”. In 2019, the company had already been charged with embezzlement between 2000 and 2016 in five countries: China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Kuwait and Djibouti. The Swedish group had agreed to pay more than $1 billion (about €900 million) as part of an out-of-court settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice under their Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Recently, confidential documents have established corruption and malpractice in ten additional countries: Iraq, South Africa, Angola, the United States, Brazil, Azerbaijan, Morocco, Bahrain, Portugal and Libya. Finally, internal investigators are concerned about the case of Lebanon, where unethical practices towards public decision-makers were allegedly aimed at awarding contracts for the installation of telecoms equipment. More broadly, the Ericsson case raises questions about the practices of operators and equipment manufacturers in the telecoms sector as the 5G network is rolled out. (The Washington Post, 27 February 2022)
A group of international media outlets has revealed a corruption ring and illicit activities at Credit Suisse bank as part of the “Suisse Secrets” case, which follows the revelations of the “Panama Papers” and the “Paradise Papers”. The trial under way at the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona (canton of Ticino in Switzerland) accuses the bank of money laundering for a Bulgarian drug trafficking network and of having opened dozens of accounts from 2004 to 2007. The public prosecutor’s office is claiming about 42.4 million Swiss francs (€40.09 million) in compensation from the Swiss bank. Data from thousands of bank accounts managed by Credit Suisse allegedly shows that the institution held at least €96 billion of funds linked to crime and corruption for several decades, in particular from dictators, fortunes of illicit and dubious origin, and criminal or mafia networks. Swiss laws protecting banking secrecy make it difficult for journalists to access certain data on the financial system. (The Guardian, 20 February 2022)