Presidencies for sale?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The practice of multinational companies sponsoring the governments which hold the EU's rotating presidency, while lobbying the same ministers, is a rotten practice that must stop, write Vicky Cann, Suzy Sumner and Manuel Araujo. [Council Newsroom]

The practice of multinational companies sponsoring the governments which hold the EU’s rotating presidency, while lobbying the same ministers, is a rotten practice that must stop, write Vicky Cann, Suzy Sumner, and Manuel Araujo.

Vicky Cann is a campaigner and researcher with Corporate Europe Observatory; Suzy Sumner is the head of the Brussels office for foodwatch; Manuel Araujo works for Climáximo, a Portuguese climate justice organisation.

Dirty energy. Junk food manufacturers. Big tech. Elite car companies. These are just some of the companies which have benefited from having their logos plastered on EU Council Presidency websites, and their products promoted to EU ministers and officials.

The practice of member states holding the EU Council rotating presidency, and of accepting corporate sponsorship for these presidencies, dates back to at least 2004. It is a rotten practice and such deals should be urgently banned.

Microsoft (Austria and Bulgaria Presidencies in 2018), and car companies such as BMW (Finland 2019), Porsche and Audi, both owned by Volkswagen (Austria 2018), have been regular sponsors.  This is despite the fact that these companies are major lobbyists, with big EU lobby budgets aimed at influencing the direction of EU policy and regulation.

It’s really not hard to see why such companies wish to ingratiate themselves with EU decision-makers and to normalise ‘partnerships’ between those who are supposed to be regulating industry, and the industries themselves.

The Maltese Presidency (2017) took sponsorship to a different level – it offered “platinum” and “silver” sponsorship deals and promised “priceless exposure, prestige & enhanced brand recognition”.

Nothing appears untouchable when it comes to sponsorship. The climate crisis has not prevented member states (Croatia 2020 and Romania 2019) from accepting sponsorship from fossil fuel producers.

At a time when the EU should be shutting the door to fossil fuel lobbyists, in order to deliver the urgent action required to avert the climate emergency, instead recent Presidencies happily accepted money from dirty energy, once again seeming to undermine the EU’s commitment to the European Green Deal.

The current Portuguese Presidency has taken sponsorship from The Navigator Company, Europe’s largest paper products company. The company has been associated with forest fires and monoculture plantations in Portugal, and land-grabbing in Mozambique.

Navigator’s pulp plant in Setúbal is the fifth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide in Portugal, according to the latest available data.

The Portuguese Presidency is also sponsored by Delta Cafe and Sumol+Compal, the promoter of PepsiCo products in Portugal. Such sponsorship seems to fly in the face of stated EU ambitions to promote healthy living and tackle obesity.

When the Romanian Presidency (2019) splashed the Coca-Cola logo all over Council meetings in Bucharest, NGO foodwatch took action and raised the matter with the European Ombudsman.

The Ombudsman’s inquiry found that such sponsorships “entail reputational risks which the Council should address”. MEPs also backed this position, expressing concern about “possible reputational damage and the risk of loss of trust” from such deals.

Yet despite the bad press – and indeed ridicule – that these deals provoke, inside the EU Council member states have been fighting hard to hang on to their perceived right to run the Presidency as they see fit, including choosing sponsors to promote national brands.

Some countries, believed to include France and Portugal, have been reportedly arguing to further dilute an already weak proposal to loosely regulate the sponsorship of Presidencies.

This puts member states very much at odds with the public mood. It also provides more fuel to the argument that too often member states are willing to act as middle men for corporate interests in the EU Council.

Time and again in key files on crucial issues like climate change, big tech, finance and tax, EU Council positions are far too closely aligned with those of big business.

The member states should ban corporate sponsorship of EU Council presidencies. Campaign groups have launched a campaign targeting Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa, demanding an end to these deals and the risk of conflicts of interest which they provoke.

Member states should, as a first step, take this action urgently. But that is not enough. They should then continue on a much longer journey, in order to meaningfully tackle the wider problem of excessive corporate influence on decision-making in the EU Council.

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