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By CLOTHILDE GOUJARD
Hello! As Sarah just got back from her sunny vacation, here I am, Clothilde Goujard, a tech reporter at POLITICO, bringing you this week’s edition.
Now that I’ve introduced myself, I’m assuming some of you will need to be reassured. No, despite POLITICO’s owner pledging that some of the more turgid journalism jobs could be outsourced to artificial intelligence, I promise this newsletter was not written by a still sketchy version of ChatGPT.
And as journalists like me wonder how much of their writing will soon be automated (and even improved?) by AI, EU politicians and policymakers should get ready to face AI-boosted lobbying strategies, as MIT Tech review reports.
But for now, let’s move on to our weekly influence menu: TikTok, Qatargate fallout and think tanks’ influence in Brussels. Sarah is back next week.
ON THE RECORD
“Sometimes, the reason that I am given for the non-implementation of a recommendation is not, ‘Because I’ve made a mistake,’ ‘My colleagues have made a mistake,’ or, ‘We’ve got the wrong end of the stick.’ But it’s simply because an institution simply doesn’t want to do something, and sometimes there is an element of impunity there. They feel that they can get away with it.”
— Emily O’Reilly, European ombudsman, speaking on March 13 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg about her work in 2022.
TIKTOK’S LOBBYING STRUGGLE
IN DEFENSE OF VIRAL DANCE VIDEOS: Wednesday was the deadline for European Commission staff to delete TikTok from their work phones. It’s a swift reversal of fortune for the video platform: Just two months ago, TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew was on his first trip to Brussels, shaking hands with the EU’s top tech politicians in the Commission, schmoozing with MEPs and Eurocrats in a fancy restaurant and meeting with journalists to present the company’s strategy.
EU commissioners warned the Singaporean businessman to respect EU rules. Yet, Brussels still seemed somehow preserved from the blustering political debate on the other side of the Atlantic, where the U.S. had banned the social-media app from federal government devices over fears about Chinese surveillance. (TikTok’s parent company ByteDance is based in Beijing.)
Blindsided: Fast forward a few weeks and the Commission followed Washington’s lead, issuing its own ban for its officials over cybersecurity risks and catching TikTok’s EU lobbyists by surprise.
“At no point was it ever said: ‘We have this investigation going on, we’re looking into this, you might want to be aware, we’ll get in touch,’” Caroline Greer, the head of TikTok’s public affairs team in Brussels, told me last week.
Then again, there were signs: After two and a half years with TikTok, it’s not like Greer, a seasoned EU tech lobbyist, wasn’t aware of the mounting trouble in Europe for her client. An investigation into TikTok’s potentially illegal data transfers to China under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation could conclude in a few months. The firm also admitted in December that staff in China and the U.S. accessed the data of journalists using its apps.
CRISIS MODE: After a few days dazed by the domino effect of the Commission’s decision which spread to other EU institutions and capitals, TikTok lurched into a full counter-offensive.
On the menu: The firm unveiled a European plan to secure European users’ data, named ‘Project Clover,’ sent its top executives to tour European capitals to meet policymakers (and sponsored POLITICO’s tech newsletter as a keen observer spotted).
Good comms: I asked Victoria Main, a media strategist at SEC Newgate EU, to review the platform’s response. “Given that TikTok was blindsided by the Commission, I think they’ve come out of it actually rather well,” said Main. TikTok acted “swiftly with a statement that was measured.”
Hard job ahead: Yet, the political wind seems unlikely to become more favorable for the company as tensions with China keep rising. While social media has been trying to distance itself from China, Chinese politicians and diplomats have jumped to chide the EU for its bans. “TikTok does still have a lot of challenges ahead in Brussels,” Main added. “You can’t turn a pig’s ear into a silk purse.”
Game plan: Greer is gearing up for the challenge, hoping to grow her team from five to seven, and getting comms advice from FTI Consulting (it is hoping to land its own TikTok EU communications manager in the coming weeks). “We can’t control the geopolitical situation, but we can continue with the work that we have been doing to help bridge that trust deficit, if it’s there,” she said. “This includes leaning into the questions, making ourselves available for meetings, engaging with the media. We’re not running away from this.”
Installation failure: TikTok’s requests for meetings with the EU institutions to discuss lifting the ban have so far been declined, a spokesperson for the company confirmed Tuesday.
While London is seeing a raft of think tanks hiring to influence upcoming British legislation, Brussels is also seeing its fair share of newcomers (and I’m not just speaking about the philosophical German leopard kind).
The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change with its more than 60 people working on tech policy officially opened its Brussels office a few days ago. UK think tank New Economics Foundation also came across the Channel a few months ago. Meanwhile, U.S. economic think tank Open Markets Institute hired its first Brussels-based director at the turn of the year. There were 562 think tanks and academic institutions registered in the EU transparency register as of March 14.
PARLIAMENT PUNTS ON FULL HOLOLEI SCRUTINY: As the only directly elected EU institution, the Parliament prides itself on holding the unelected officials in the Commission and Council to account.
But when it comes to the revelations by POLITICO that top Commission official Henrik Hololei signed off on his own free flights to Qatar while negotiating a key aviation deal with the Gulf country, some MEPs seem to have lost their nerve.
Talking shop: In Strasbourg on Monday, a last-minute proposal for a debate on the subject by The Left group was backed by a majority of MEPs. That debate on Wednesday with EU Commissioner Mairead McGuinness saw several MEPs reiterating their call for the creation of an independent ethics body to prevent a Hololei repeat.
Too much for some: But a parallel push by the Greens’ group to also have a parliamentary resolution later this month on Hololei’s flights and broader questions about integrity and transparency at the EU executive fell short because Renew, the EPP and ECR rejected it — even though the Commission itself has launched an internal probe and already tightened its own rules.
Renew says non: In the plenary, Stéphane Séjourné, president of Renew Europe, which held the swing vote, supported the debate but rejected the resolution. “This affair again proves that we need an interinstitutional [ethics] body,” he said. A Renew spokesperson added: “The question here is: What do you want to say in the resolution? We already had so many resolutions voted in February … ”
Dusty business: Manon Aubry, co-president of the Left, told POLITICO’s Eddy Wax that the lack of a resolution was tantamount to “sweeping the dust under the carpet and avoiding the parallel reforms in the EP go too far.” “It’s business as usual,” Aubry said by text.
MEP LOBBY LIMITS: Top EU lawmakers and Parliament President Roberta Metsola this week decided in a closed-door meeting to ban MEPs from lobbying their colleagues for six months after they leave office. The agreement in principle was reached during a meeting of the Bureau, the murky format that brings together Parliament President Roberta Metsola and her 14 vice presidents to decide on internal rules. Bar a few nips and tucks, the new rules should be implemented from May 1 and will mean that all ex-MEPs will be barred from entering Parliament to lobby their peers for six months.
Watchdogs howl: The decision, however, left activists disappointed. “This was the first big test of the Parliament’s resolve to put its house in order following the Qatargate scandal, and it has failed miserably,” said Michiel van Hulten, director of Transparency International EU, in a statement. Transparency International has said the move was mostly symbolic since there are few laws negotiated in the first six months of a legislature.
VISENTINI OUT AT GLOBAL LABOR UNION: In the fallout of the Qatargate scandal, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)’s General Council dismissed Luca Visentini, arguing that he lost the organization’s confidence after accepting money from tainted NGO Fight Impunity. An election for a new leader will be held “as soon as is practicable.”
COMMISSION STANDS BY AVRAMOPULOUS GREENLIGHT: The Commission granted former Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos permission to take a paid position on the board of Fight Impunity even though the NGO wasn’t listed in the EU’s Transparency Register, acknowledged Commission VP Věra Jourová in a reply to MEP Daniel Freund. That’s because, she explained, the main funding source — the Sekunjalo Development Foundation, according to Avramopoulos’ application — didn’t have any links to his Brussels portfolio.
WHO’S PAYING YOU? Expect some NGOs to deliver an earful to Jourová when they meet her about the EU’s plans to limit foreign influence later this week. As Nick Vinocur reports, a Commission survey suggests that the new Defense of Democracy package, expected in late May, could add extra requirements for nonprofits, consultancies and academic institutions to disclose non-EU funding — details NGOs already have to provide.
NOTHING TO SEE HERE: EU Transparency Commissioner Věra Jourová wrote in a letter to Greens lawmakers that the husband of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen did not break any conflict of interest rules by working in a biotech company that obtained EU money, reported my colleague Carlo Martuscelli.
NOTHING TO SEE HERE (2): The European Commission denied having any issues working with the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, after its head called out a lack of cooperation from European Union institutions, Carlo reported.
EDELMAN STAKES CLAIM TO LANDMARK: Edelman Global Advisory (EGA), the lobbying arm of the behemoth U.S.-based PR consultancy, announced Wednesday that it’s acquiring Landmark Public Affairs, beefing up its offerings in Europe and Asia. Rocco Renaldi, Landmark’s founding partner and managing director, will serve as chair of EGA Europe as well as Global Chair of Food & Beverage Policy (Landmark’s top Brussels clients include Mars, PepsiCo. and other Big Food players).
Integration: EGA’s Feargal Purcell in Dublin and Landmark’s David Bates in London will be co-vice chairmen of EGA Europe. Amaia Betelu is set to be acting president of EGA Brussels.
Other moves: As we told you last week, former Edelman Brussels chief Stefan Borst is the global comms company’s new head of energy and industrials, EMEA, a role that will see him travel well outside the bubble.
THE SPY WHO LOBBIED ME: Ex-intelligence executives from Germany and France are pooling their advisory services with the C|T Group, a strategic consultancy, in a new tie-up dubbed the “Apertus Alliance.” The principals are Patrick Calvar, the former head of the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Intérieure, and Gerhard Schindler, the ex-president of Germany’s security service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, with C|T Group Intelligence Practice chief Eugene Curley, a British foreign service and counterterrorism veteran, chairing the initiative.
CONSULTING & COMMS
— Zeynep Yıldızeli is a new account manager on the associations management team at SEC Newgate EU, via B2EU Consulting.
— Matteo Pederzoli, previously of Pomilio Blumm, is now director, EMEA, of the International Coaching Federation.
—Rud Pedersen Public Affairs appears to be gearing up for joint EU weapons procurement, recruiting Baudouin Heuninckx, the deputy national armaments director of Belgium, and Bernd-Ulrich von Wegerer, a former armaments policy chief at the German permanent representation, as senior advisers.
— Rud Pedersen hired former Cosmetics Europe chief Diane Watson-Nielsen as director responsible for its health care, environment and chemicals practices.
— The list of 30 MEPs sitting on the Parliament’s new health subcommittee is now public.
— René Branders, CEO of FIB Belgium, is the new president of Fédération des Entreprises de Belgique.
— Alexis Chalopin and Ségolène Milaire started this week as counselors for innovation and industrial policy at the French permanent representation in Brussels.
— Juha S. Niemelä of Metsähallitus has been elected president of the European State Forest Association (EUSTAFOR), succeeding Reinhardt Neft of the Bavarian State Forest.
THANKS TO: Eddy Wax, Sarah Wheaton, Carlo Martuscelli, Susannah Savage, Giorgio Leali, Camille Gijs, Nicholas Vinocur and Louise Guillot; visual producer Giovanna Coi, web producer Giulia Poloni and my editor Ali Walker.
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