Parliament report opens ‘Pandora’s Box’ of EU-funded NGOs

Kristalina Georgieva, Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of Budget and Human Resources, hands over a cheque to the Italian Red Cross and Give Eur-Hope asbl for the victims of the earthquake that hit Central Italy, in Tronto Valley, on 24 August 2016. [European Union]

A draft European Parliament report calling on the European Commission to reject funding for NGOs that oppose the “strategic commercial and security objectives” of the EU is creating upheaval among civil society groups.

The own-initiative report says the way EU taxpayer money is used to fund NGOs should be “comprehensively and credibly documented”.

NGOs received EU funding to the tune of €1.2 billion in 2015, according to the report drafted by Markus Pieper, a German Christian Democrat MEP from the European People’s Party (EPP).

More than 90% of monies were allocated under the ‘Global Europe’ heading, the report noted, referring to EU aid and emergency funding for developing countries.

Other budget headings were much smaller – around 4% was allocated under ‘Sustainable growth within natural resources’, almost 4% under ‘Security and citizenship’ and less than 0.5% under ‘Smart and inclusive growth’.

But the report highlighted a high concentration of EU funding among a handful of beneficiaries. Almost 60% of funding available under the EU’s environmental, social, health and human rights programmes was allocated to just 20 NGOs, the report noted, calling on the Commission to improve its control procedures.

Returning a criticism often levelled at corporate lobby groups, the report also called on the Commission to introduce requirements for NGOs to publish the details of the lobbying contacts they’ve had with EU officials and MEPs on an annual basis.

More generally, the German MEP called for “harmonised rules” to apply on any grants awarded by the EU, suggesting no double standards should apply in the way funds are allocated and controlled.

Markus Pieper’s views on NGO funding will find traction among some conservative EU politicians. Speaking at the EPP congress in Malta last week, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán attacked what he described as the “NGO business” of immigration.

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Controversial paragraph

The campaign for greater transparency and accountability of NGOs is not new. It even has its own advocacy group, called NGO Monitor, which denounces the relationship between Europe and NGOs as “problematic”.

EU funding to civil society is usually part of broader foreign aid policy, the group writes on its website, saying “a small number of NGOs” are often entrusted with the implementation of governmental policies, “without consideration of their political and ideological agendas”.

NGO Monitor particularly questions the “disproportionate focus” of EU aid on the Arab-Israeli conflict and the “political warfare” some wage against Israel.

The criticism of ideological bias is echoed in a controversial paragraph in the Pieper report, which calls on the EU to reject any funding for organisations which “demonstrably disseminate untruths and/or whose objectives are contrary to the fundamental values of the European Union, democracy, human rights and/or strategic commercial and security policy objectives of the European Union institutions”.

This clause triggered strong reactions from Magda Stoczkiewicz, Director at Friends of the Earth Europe, a civil society group campaigning on a wide range of environmental issues, likes GMOs and pesticides.

She denounced the report’s reference to the “strategic commercial and security objectives” of the EU, saying, “This is restricting public input and debate that NGOs are there to ensure while acting in the public interest.”

According to Stoczkiewicz, the public interest focus of EU funding to civil society was recognised long ago in the European Commission White Paper on Governance, published in 2001. More broadly, government bodies that subsidise civil society to engage in its policies was “what sets democracies aside from autocracies and needs to be recognised particularly in our times”, she added.

Stoczkiewicz emphasised that Friends of the Earth was transparent about its sources of funding and stressed that transparency on funding should apply to all advocacy groups in Brussels, not only NGOs.

“Therefore, we are for more stringent and mandatory lobby register,” she said.

Lies and made-up stories?

EURACTIV.com contacted industry representatives who agreed with the spirit of the report and emphasised the cases of “misinformation”.

Beat Späth, Director of Green Biotechnology at EuropaBio, said, “It seems fair to ensure transparency when taxpayers’ money is spent – including when it goes to NGOs that may sometimes spread misinformation.”

“Especially in today’s post-truth age, misinformation tends to spread quickly, and influences decision making, as often happens in the case of GMOs. It is an important political decision whether to fund misinformation,” he stated.

Speaking to EURACTIV on condition of anonymity, another industry source said many assertions contained in the reports of environmental NGOs were “made-up” and contain “absolute lies”.

“Everything we do, for instance, the studies that we fund, need to be legally approved […] we cannot make up things as we are talking about products,” the source underlined, adding that a company cannot file a lawsuit against these “fake studies as our reputation would be damaged”.

The same source stressed that most of the times the NGO reports are too technical and, thus, hard to fact-check.

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