Commercial sponsorship, lobbying: these private groups that sponsor the Presidency of the Council of the European Union

“Relaunch, power, membership”: this is the motto chosen by France which will preside for six months, from January 1, 2022, the Council of the European Union, that is to say the meeting of ministers and State Secretaries from the 27 member countries of the European Union (EU). But we could add a fourth word: “patrons”. Because France, like most of the other member countries, has called on private groups to help finance its presidency.

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We had to wait to know the details. On April 30, 2019, the Foodwatch association alerted the Presidency of the French Republic by asking it not to resort to private sponsors, a letter to which the Élysée would respond a month later. But it is on October 14, 2021 that the Secretary of State for European Affairs, Clément Beaune finally unveils the French choices in front of the Senate. France will exclude private sponsorship, he promises. But he specifies that “two exceptions in an environmental logic” will still be admitted. First of all, “clean French vehicles” will be loaned or rented. Then it is considered “the possibility, as was done for the G7 (…) of full carbon compensation for emissions linked to the presidency, by calling on French energy companies.” In this case, EDF. This last option will ultimately not be retained. On the other hand, recourse to automobile sponsorship will be confirmed. And France will call on the services of Renault and Stellantis (resulting from the merger between the PSA and Fiat Chrysler groups). In total, 220 electric and hybrid vehicles will be provided free of charge by manufacturers to transport delegations of European ministers for six months.

The French Head of State at the European Council in Brussels in June 2021 (JOHN THYS / AFP)

“We want this presidency to be the greenest and the most industrially sovereign”, explains the Secretary of State for European Affairs, Clément Beaune, to justify this choice. The objective is “to organize a carbon neutral presidency” and of “preserve the climate”, further affirms the press kit published on the occasion of Emmanuel Macron’s press conference on the future French presidency of the EU, on December 9, 2021.

“It is absolutely not insignificant for France to associate a corporate brand with a presidency at the highest level of the institutions of the European Union, estimates the executive director of the NGO Foodwatch, Karine Jacquemart. Any risk of conflict of interest at the highest level in Europe should be avoided. It’s a matter of principle, a non-negotiable red line. “ For its part, France indicates that “this support is the subject of agreements between the General Secretariat of the French Presidency of the Council of the EU” in “a transparent frame” forbidding “any form of commercial communication” around this sponsorship.

But a second problem is raised: France has not resorted to a call for tenders. A choice criticized by various associations, but also by the Brussels lobby. “If we want to justify the reduction in costs, it is better to go through public contracts to avoid criticism, says Paul Varakas, president of the Society of European Public Affairs Representatives (SEAP). Otherwise, it negatively affects confidence in politics and the legislative process, in which lobbying takes place. “ On the French side, we assume the choice of these two patrons, Renault and Stellantis. “It’s a question of image, says Clément Beaune. Taking into account the market rules, we would probably not have been able to have clean and French vehicles by going through a call for tenders. “

Last point that raises questions: the environmental argument used by the government, while Renault and the Stellantis subsidiaries have been indicted for “deception” in the dieselgate affair, with suspicion of anti-pollution test rigging. “Associating these companies with the governance of the European Union by France, which claims to fight against pollution and global warming, even before the end of the legal proceedings, is a bad signal”, believes the lawyer François Lafforgue who defends several environmental associations and vehicle owners in this case.
The two automakers are contesting any infringement in this case, and this indictment changes nothing for the government. “In any case, many other European manufacturers are concerned, underlines Clément Beaune. And then that would mean that we would have to ask the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister, the ministers, our prefects and our ambassadors to no longer circulate in French vehicles., adds the Secretary of State for European Affairs. Is this really what we want for our automotive industry and the image of France? “

Little is known about it, but multinationals like BMW, Microsoft and oil companies regularly fund rotating EU presidencies. “It can be direct financial support or a wide variety of services such as the supply of soft drinks or alcohol, a fleet of cars or even computer systems., recalls Vicky Cann of the NGO Corporate Europe Observatory. In short, everything that the country which holds the rotating presidency thinks it needs to organize the events for which it is responsible and which are not covered by the budget of the European Union. “

France had already appealed to patrons (Renault, Peugeot, Lagardère …) during its previous rotating presidency, whose budget of 171 million euros (including 10 million supported by companies) had been pinned by the Court accounts. The Areva company had notably spent 1.5 million euros to illuminate the Eiffel Tower in the colors of the European Union. “A political communication operation intended to please President Nicolas Sarkozy, at a time when the president of Areva, Anne Lauvergeon, was seeking to give pledges to try to stay in her post”, analyzes nuclear specialist Thierry Gadault.

In January 2019, the somewhat too showy presence of Coca-Cola as a “platinum” sponsor of Romania, then rotating president of the Council of the EU, sparked controversy. And this at a time when the question of an independent nutritional logo of agri-food companies is at the heart of the debates in Brussels. The Foodwatch association then launched a petition, asked Member States to refuse any type of commercial sponsorship and seized the European mediator who wanted to establish binding rules on the subject.

“After several months of complicated negotiations with member states, guidelines have finally been drawn up, explains Jean Comte who follows these questions for the journal Contexte. In the end, it is a document that is not binding at all. Basically, we strongly advise member states to be as ethical and transparent as possible on the issue… “ Nothing therefore prevents a country from continuing to have recourse to sponsors and to display them on an official website as Slovenia does, for example, which will pass the baton on to France. “France was one of the countries which really insisted that there be no taxable rules on the Member States on the subject. We have seen several working documents circulating on this subject., emphasizes Jean Comte. If the Member State holding the six-monthly Presidency decides to resort to private sponsorship to cover certain costs, it should put in place all the necessary measures to avoid any conflict of interest or possible risk to the reputation of the Council or the EU which could arise from this sponsorship. “

In a recently released report, Corporate Europe Observatory and the Multinationals Observatory emphasize the close links that exist between French European relays and large companies. “Of the twelve meetings on the agenda of the permanent representative of France in Brussels published in July 2021, two took place with EDF, one with Dassault, then one with the maritime company CMA-CGM, emphasizes Olivier Petijean of the Multinationals Observatory. The others are with lobbies and think tanks. There is only one with an association that represents the rights of the disabled. “ Faced with these criticisms, France defends its position. “Not meeting, not listening does not seem to me to be a sign of political intelligence”, replies Secretary of State for European Affairs Clément Beaune who says he has “always answered” to the requests of NGOs. “Influence is when you are dependent on a point of view, hide your contacts and are funded or dependent on such and such a sector., he continues. Hearing arguments can always be interesting, but that does not affect France’s position. “

The NGO report was particularly interested in the action of certain lobbying firms, such as Athénora, which defends the interests of multinationals such as Vinci, but also of insurers or mutuals, the Post Office or the National Council of Registrars of commercial courts. This firm is active through its Circle of European Networks, to which several CAC 40 companies belong, further underlines the NGO report. “It organizes privileged access to Brussels decision-makers for large French companies, explains Olivier Petijean. Several meetings were thus organized as part of the preparation for the French presidency of the EU, including with the advisor to the Prime Minister in charge of European issues. This makes it possible to discuss behind closed doors and to have first-hand information on what is being prepared, but also to convey certain messages… unlike associative or union actors. “

“Lobbying means convincing, showing conviction, going to bring arguments: this is not at all what we do in the Circle of European Networks, answers Athénora’s general manager, Natacha Clarac. It is a time of exchange. What interests the decision-makers who intervene in this circle is that over a very short period of time, they can have the vision of ten or twenty companies, and their reading of European texts. These meetings help nurture the relationship. “ On May 18, 2021, the member companies of the “circle” thus had “confidential” talks with the Secretary General of the French Presidency of the European Union, Xavier Lapeyre de Cabanes.

“The objective of this meeting was to allow French companies to fully understand how the bottom of the cards of the French presidency was organized, when these companies were in the process of submitting files to have certain projects labeled., explains Natacha Clarac. But as I always say to my clients: meeting is not convincing. This is the first step. “

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