Author: Eszter Zalan
Posted: November 17 2016
The European Commission stood by German commissioner Guenther Oettinger on Thursday (17 November), saying that his flight with a lobbyist in May was not a meeting that fell under EU ethics and transparency rules.
Oettinger has come under pressure for flying from Brussels to Budapest on 18 May to a conference the next day on the private jet of Klaus Mangold, a German businessman and lobbyist advocating for lifting EU sanctions on Russia.
Oettinger says he made the flight on the invitation of the Hungarian government.
The commission’s spokesman said that the transportation did not constitute a gift, which commissioners are not allowed to accept, nor did the two-hour journey count as a meeting with a lobbyist.
“He [Oettinger] had to opt for this type of transport as he received an invitation to meet one of the 28 heads of state or government, and the only possible way to do it was to accept the invitation from the Hungarian government [which] offered him this specific kind of transport,” Margaritis Schinas said.
“This would not be seen as a conflict of interest,” he added.
He said that a meeting was not the same as a journey.
“It’s one thing a meeting planned with someone falling under the transparency rules, and it’s different travelling …There is a clear difference between a meeting and a journey,” the spokesman said.
Schinas also said that the commission’s transparency rules did not apply in Oettinger’s case.
“It was not a meeting that falls under the very specific requirements of code of conduct or transparency registry, it was not in the commissioner’s competence, because he is on the digital agenda, and the gentleman in question [Mangold] is not connected to the digital agenda, and in any case, this was an offer from the Hungarian government,” he said.
In Budapest, the prime minister’s chief of staff, Janos Lazar, told journalists that Mangold had been recently helping the Hungarian government with digital issues, however.
He said that it was Mangold who recommended to Hungarian authorities to organise conferences on the issue in May, and again on Thursday (17 November), which commissioner Oettinger attended.
Lobby watchdogs have criticised the commission’s response.
“The commission’s explanation that there is no obligation to declare meetings that fall outside of the commissioner’s portfolio, is simply incorrect,” Daniel Freund, Transparency International’s head of advocacy on EU integrity, told EUobserver.
“The commission’s interpretation of the transparency rules is ludicrous,” Vicky Cann, of the Corporate Europe Observatory, told this website.
“The commission’s rules from 2014 clearly state that ‘members of the commission shall make public information on all meetings held by them … with organisations or self-employed individuals’,” Freund pointed out.
He said that “there is no exception with regards to what falls outside of their portfolio, only purely personal meetings and a very restricted group of actors such as political party representatives could be exceptions.”
“I don’t understand which exception Mangold would fall into,” the transparency expert said.
“The only scenario where this could be the case is if Oettinger and Mangold talked only about the weather during the flight, which I find highly unlikely,” Freund added.
He noted that “who arranged the trip does not really matter. What matters is who paid the gift. If you are suggested to accept a gift, you are still breaking the rules if you accept it. As far as the explanations from the commission go, it still seems that Oettinger broke both lobby and ethics rules.”
Corporate Europe Observatory’s Vicky Cann said that in any case, “commissioners share collective responsibility so it is not possible to clearly limit transparency requirements by portfolio.”
“Any discussions on EU policy between a commissioner and third party interests while sharing a private jet should clearly be seen as lobbying. After all, Oettinger was not going on holiday on a commercial flight. He was flying, as a commissioner, on a private jet, to attend an official meeting,” she said.
Lobbyist and advisor
Oettinger said that the flight on Mangold’s plane was proposed and also paid for by the Hungarian government.
Questioned by journalists, prime minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff Janos Lazar indicated that the government has had a framework agreement with Klaus Mangold’s consultancy firm for the past six or seven years.
He added that under the agreement with Mangold, the Hungarian government asked the German businessman to help organise the May conference on the future of cars in Budapest, to which Oettinger went.
Lazar said that the Hungarian state has no plane and that the use of Mangold’s plane “fits into” the general agreement with him, if the government asks for it.
He declined to reveal the value of the contract between the Hungarian government and Mangold, whom he called a “friend and advisor” to the cabinet.
He said that Orban asked for a dinner with Oettinger on digital issues. “I think it [the invitation] was sent out weeks before,” Lazar said, referring to the 18 May evening dinner.
“It was not easy to organise,” he added. “We have asked him [Mangold] to help organising the dinner and suggested to Oettinger to come together to discuss digital issues,” Lazar told journalists.
Even after possible weeks of planning, the Hungarian government’s offer seemed to have surprised the commission.
“This was something offered by the Hungarian government, it was unexpected, it wasn’t planned, and it was something offered to make this meeting possible,” the commission’s spokesman, Schinas, said.
Lazar called the issue a “petty revenge” by Hungarian Green MEP Benedek Javor for having failed to derail the extension of the Paks nuclear plant, a project known as Paks II.
Javor earlier suggested that the controversial Russian-built extension of Hungary’s only nuclear plant was discussed by Oettinger, a former energy EU commissioner, Mangold and Orban.
Both the commission and the Hungarian government have denied the Paks II claim.
Javor, along with the Green EU parliament group leader Rebecca Harms, revealed Oettinger’s flight in July when they sent a written question to the commission.
The commission on Thursday (17 November) ended one of the probes into the Paks II plant, closing an infringement case against Hungary on EU public procurement rules.
The case was opened a year ago, because Hungary did not hold an open tender when it hired Russia’s Rosatom to expand the Paks nuclear power plant.
The commission said the direct award to Rosatom was compatible with EU rules “on the grounds that Hungary has sufficiently justified the need to apply the technical exclusivity provision.”
The commission also said Hungary has “committed to ensuring that most of the other parts of the project will be subcontracted respecting transparency, equal treatment and non-discrimination.”
Another commission probe is still ongoing on possible illegal state aid in the Paks II case.