Ombudsman slams EU Council for tolerating presidencies’ private sponsorship

“The movement of regulators into sectors they formerly regulated has become a problematic issue in Brussels, yet this is not fully reflected in how the EU administration deals with the matter,” said O’Reilly. [EPA-EFE/LAURENT DUBRULE]

With Coca Cola and BMW sponsoring Romania and Finland during their respective EU Council presidencies last year, it would appear that member states have no qualms with private sector funding. But the European Ombudsman finds that this tarnishes the EU’s reputation. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Such sponsorships by private companies damage the European Union’s reputation, according to European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly.

Following a complaint made by the consumer protection watchdog foodwatch, she responded on Monday (6 January) by saying that the EU Presidency must be “neutral and impartial” and that the EU Council should draw up clear rules on corporate sponsorship.

The complaint, filed in June 2019, expressed outrage at the fact that the Romanian Presidency had been supported by the Coca Cola company, among others, in the first half of the year.

And it was the tweet by a German journalist (below) that had drawn attention to the matter.

In the complaint, it was stated that the beverage company not only supplied the Romanian government with furniture but also delivered 140,000 litres of beverages for various meetings. These were seen as apparent attempts to influence EU food policy, which had adopted the EU Food Information Regulation in the same half-year.

And according to foodwatch CEO Thilo Bode, this could tarnish the EU’s reputation, knowing that “if citizens see the EU flag next to the logo of Coca-Cola, BMW or Google, it damages the credibility of politics in Europe”.

Bode also called on Germany to refrain from accepting any sponsors for its upcoming EU Council presidency in the second half of 2020.

Coca-Cola’s EU Council sponsorship raises eyebrows

NGO Foodwatch has taken exception to Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the Romanian Presidency of the EU Council. Bucarest says everything has been done transparently and in line with legal criteria. EURACTIV France reports.

Oil companies, car industry and Microsoft sponsored EU presidencies

In recent years, it has become a norm for EU member states to seek out sponsors through tenders for their Council presidencies. For instance, Coca Cola had already supported the Polish Presidency in 2011.

Before Romania, which also counted the national oil and gas group “OMV Petrom” among its sponsors, Austria had brought a wide range of companies on board, including Porsche, DHL and Microsoft. And under the Finnish Presidency, which had just ended, BMW ended up being the only company to secure sovereignty over sponsorship.

But the amount of money, if any, which has flowed from the companies to the organisers of the presidency remains unknown. Ireland alone had disclosed its sponsorship income in 2013 and declared a total of €1.4 million.

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Internal EU documents show that a European Commission fund invests €40 million per year into coal research projects. The money also goes towards personnel costs for Europe’s main coal lobby organisation.

EU Council does not consider itself responsible

Last year, the EU Council responded to foodwatch’s complaint concerning Coca Cola by stating that there were “other activities” besides the official tasks of the Council Presidency, which were neutral and financed by Brussels.

Such activities would be organised by the member states themselves and would include unofficial meetings as well as the entire accompanying programme of the Council Presidency. For these, however, the EU member states themselves are deemed to be responsible.

Foodwatch was unhappy with the response, so it turned to EU Ombudsman O’Reilly, who ended up agreeing with the association this week.

The fact that citizens would associate a Presidency event sponsored by a company with the EU is “understandable, expected and unavoidable”, she said. O’Reilly reacted by saying the EU Council was avoiding responsibility and its inactivity in the matter was downright “bad corporate governance”.

And since the European Council already provides its member states with practical and strategic assistance for the presidency, it might as well draw up guidelines for dealing with companies, she added.

“A unique opportunity for private companies

And it turns out that others share the Ombudsman’s view. In October, MEPs also adopted a report in which they “regretted” that corporate sponsorship had become the norm for presidencies.

The EU Parliament is, therefore, “extremely concerned” about the threat this could pose for the EU’s reputation and the potential loss of confidence of its citizens.

However, when asked by EURACTIV, the EU Council replied today (9 January) that it was now working on guidelines for dealing with private sponsors.

Croatia, which took over the EU presidency at the start of the year, has not publicly announced the involvement of any sponsors yet. But according to a PR agency based in Zagreb, two tenders have already been issued.

A partnership with the presidency of the Council is a “unique opportunity for private companies to position themselves on the EU-wide market better,” the PR agency said on its website.

Croatia unveils look and feel of next year's EU presidency

Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković unveiled the trappings of his country’s EU presidency on Wednesday (30 October), confirming what priorities will feature during the Balkan nation’s six months at the helm of the European Council.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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