The European Commission has launched an investigation into newspaper allegations that a top official gave sensitive information to reporters posing as representatives of Chinese businessmen, it announced yesterday (8 September).
Last March, Fritz-Harald Wenig, a director in the EU executive’s trade department, was offered cash over lunch in an expensive Brussels restaurant in exchange for revealing insider trade-related knowledge to undercover reporters posing as lobbyists for a Chinese company, according to allegations published in last weekend’s Sunday Times. Wenig refused to accept the money outright, but did not rule out storing the funds in a joint account until his retirement.
Following the initial conversation, which was recorded, Wenig continued to liaise with the reporters on a regular basis, revealing potentially “commercially valuable” information which last week culminated in a leak of an upcoming decision on whether to extend tariffs on Chinese footwear imports (EURACTIV 09/10/06), the newspaper reports.
The Commission, which negotiates global trade agreements on behalf of the EU’s member states, immediately released a statement announcing an investigation “to establish the facts and the appropriate consequences,” noting that “the official in question is presently out of the office on leave”. Stressing that it “fully respects the presumption of innocence of persons under investigation or subject to allegations,” the EU executive stated that it “follows a policy of zero tolerance vis-à-vis unethical and illegal behaviour”.
The Commission’s staff regulations state that officials must “refrain from any unauthorised disclosure of information received in the line of duty” unless it is already in the public domain. Regarding this particular case, spokesperson Max Strotmann stressed that the EU executive “won’t jump to conclusions,” but declined to comment further pending investigation.
Meanwhile, the EU’s anti-fraud office OLAF said it would establish the facts before deciding whether to open its own investigation into the matter. But “cases concerning internal wrongdoing can take a long time to resolve,” warned spokesperson Jorg Wojahn.
External estimates put the total number of lobbyists operating in Brussels at around 15,000 individuals, but the Commission and lobbyists themselves have questioned the accuracy of this (EURACTIV 10/06/08). In the meantime, participation in the register launched by the EU executive in June to keep track of lobbyists remains voluntary (EURACTIV 24/06/08). As of 8 September, 313 bodies had signed up. The success of the scheme, which is currently in an experimental phase, will be evaluated next summer.
“This case shows that even Commission officials do not take the lobbyists register seriously as [they] should ask lobbyists if they are registered or not,” said Paul de Clerck of Friends of the Earth Europe, a member of the steering committee of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU). “Obviously Mr. Wenig didn’t do any research to find out if the so-called lobbyists were real and legitimate,” he told EURACTIV.
Meanwhile, European Centre for Public Affairs Executive Director Tom Spencer expressed his belief that newspapers would attempt to expose more such cases in the run-up to the European elections in 2009. “The [Commission’s] lobbyists register would not have made much difference [in this case] because [Wenig] did not check whether the Chinese company existed,” he said.