Flemish daily De Tijd, quoting anonymous sources in the Belgian Central Anti-Corruption Agency and the Belgian Federal Court, writes today that an unnamed French lobbying firm active in Brussels has sold confidential information on upcoming tenders for EU contracts to a consortium of Belgian consultancies. This allowed the Belgian consultancies to prepare their offer in such a way that their competitors had no chance to win these contracts. The Belgian authorities started investigating this case after they had been alerted by the EU anti fraud agency OLAF and the French justice. The Belgian fraud investigators are reported to have found several suspect payments by the Belgian consultancies to the French lobby firm. The newspaper article suggests that the lobby firm may even have bribed EU officials to obtain the confidential information. The facts under investigation date back to the year 2006.
This story comes just a week after I spoke at a debate on EU lobbying transparency in the European Parliament, organised by the European Voice, where representatives of the lobbying sector claimed that contrary to Washington DC, lobbying in Brussels is characterised by high ethical standards and an absence of scandals, suggesting there was a need for rather less than more transparency obligations on Brussels lobbyists.
The problem with this type of reasoning has always been that the fact that we don’t know of any major lobbying scandal does not mean that there were no lobbying scandals. It only means that we (the general public) don’t know about such scandals. And the continued lack of transparency, in particular on the financial aspects of EU lobbying, does make it much easier for wrongdoers to hide their traces.
It will be interesting to find out more details about this case, but even at this stage it demonstrates that the for-profit lobbyists' favorite image of Brussels as some kind of village full of well-behaved gentleman-lobbyists, is in fact a misleading illusion. With the European Commission currently undertaking a review of the first year of its voluntary and flawed “Register of Interest Representatives”, and negotiations on a shared EP-Commission lobbying register to resume soon, there now seems to be a compelling new argument for strong transparency and ethics obligations for EU lobbyists – something that public interest groups have been calling for since long.