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Qatargate, authoritarian backlash and Orban’s fleas

The unified political outrage in the European Parliament following Qatargate lasted more or less until Christmas. There was - granted – an ambitious, cross-party resolution voted 15 December, to clean up the political mess collectively by strengthening transparency and ethics rules and installing real, independent enforcement of those.  But before the year ended this political will began to melt like ice caps under climate change.


This article was first published by EUObserver (in a slightly shorter version)

There were early signs of a conservative backlash. In December the European People Party (EPP) tabled a resolution to abolish the European Parliament's Urgent Resolutions on Human Rights, "until we can ensure with certainty that the integrity of the process is not violated by third countries such as Qatar".

After the resolution was rejected, the EPP announced in an early daze of election-fever to withdraw from these parliamentary proceedings. The EPP soon declared the 2024 EU-election campaign had begun and that ‘we need to talk about NGOs’.

German MEP Reinhard Butikofer reacted angrily to the above,  claiming the EPP was using Qatargate as an excuse to undermine human rights work because "they wanted to abolish [the urgency resolutions] anyway."

The Renew group pointed out that "silence of the European Parliament on human rights issues would be exactly what the Qatari bribery wanted to achieve."

Civil Society Europe (CSE) issued a statement, and welcomed the calls of the EP-resolution stating that “civil society organisations have for decades been on the forefront of denouncing the lack of action by EU institutions to address corruption and lack of transparency”.

Conservative backlash

In the new year things became clear: Qatargate is being used by right wing politicians to cast doubt over civil society. For them, the sometimes successful campaigns by often under-financed and understaffed NGOs is a pain -  it counters their private sector narrative and neo-liberal ideology.

This is nothing new. Years ago, after a broad civil society-movement successfully rallied against the controversial and now defunct trade and investment agreement (TTIP) between the EU and US, German EPP-MEP Markus Pieper wanted to convince his colleagues of the committee of budgetary control that they should do a report into the finances of civil society.

He commissioned a report – later retracted by the EPP – by which Pieper denounced that the EU was funding NGOs who he bizarrely claimed were ‘opposing European values’.  Pieper even suggested that “NGOs that do not comply with the EU’s strategic commercial and security-policy objectives should not receive EU funding”.      

This week under the banner of “ improving transparency and NGOs”, the EPP managed to get a plenary debate on the issue.

Others have opportunistically jumped on the bandwagon. In an interview Paul Varakas, tobacco lobbyist and chief of the EU lobbyists association ‘Society of European Affairs Professionals’ (SEAP), said policymakers should also keep a close eye on NGOs funding by foundations, whose donors he claims are rarely disclosed, and though “most Brussels-based NGOs are in the EU transparency register, more attention should be emphasised on where their funding comes from”.

SEAP has numerous members working for the tobacco, chemicals and pesticides industry, unhappy with NGOs disrupting their corporate agendas.

The Budapest based website European Conservative published an article with the title ‘Soros-Backed Lobbying Hotline Launched for EU Officials’  after CEO and German lobby watchdog LobbyControl recently launched ‘LobbyLeaks’.

EPP-MEP Rainer Wieland went on a broader attack on NGOs, ignoring that NGOs already are required to publish financial information in the EU’s Transparency Register: “We should have the same expectations from NGOs as from others. It should be clear where the money comes from.”

These reactions echo the anti-ngo and Soros campaigns by Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban, a long time member of the EPP-group. Only after Orban dismantled freedom of press and an independent juridical system did the EPP kick him out. But as the saying goes, if you sleep with the dog, you get his fleas.


Fact is that under current Transparency Register rules, NGOs have to provide more detailed funding information than corporate lobbies. Transparency NGOs promote the same strict rules for all types of lobbies. Also, there is a fundamental difference between corporations and NGOs in the context of lobbying. Corporates have endless deep pockets to finance lobby strategies to defend commercial private interests. Civil society has a fraction of these budgets to finance advocacy in the general interest.

In other words: SEAP members and their political allies are now defending the use of toxic pesticides in agriculture and oppose the EU pesticide reduction targets (SUR). But for example bees and other pollinators being a victim of this, cannot fly into the European Parliament and defend themselves. They need environmental NGOs to do that.  

Claudio Francavilla, senior EU Advocate at Human Rights Watch tweeted that The enemy is corruption, not NGOs: “The ongoing witch-hunt against NGOs in the wake of Qatargate is pathetic, pointless, and most of all harmful to EU Parliament's own human rights work and to victims of abuses”.

Very Foreign Affairs

MEP Daniel Freund said: “Good that most of Brussels NGOs are very transparent about their finances. Would be great to have same transparency for Third countries as well, right? Especially those - like UAE -, who like to invite MEPs on sponsored trips?”

The essence of Qatargate is indeed that foreign, often repressive, regimes are using different methods and ways to influence EU policies. CEO has been raising the alarm about repressive regime lobbying in Brussels for years. We have consistently pointed out problems in the current EU rules and institutional culture which have failed to tackle these problems.

From the outset we said that 'Qatargate' is just the tip of the iceberg’. And whereas Qatargate is about S&D politicians,  before and after Qatargate there have been revelations about right-wing politicians receiving money from for example the Kremlin, Morocco and the Emirates, while defending the interests of those repressive regimes.  Why is no one taking notice?


In November 2018 Greens-president Philippe Lamberts wrote a letter to EP-president Tajani (EPP-member and now Italian minister of Foreign Affairs) on the involvement of at least 4 (liberal) MEPS in a so called ngo “EuroMedA Foundation” a lobby-platform for  the Moroccan leadership. Lamberts based his letter mainly on the EUObserver article “Exposed; How Morocco lobbies EU for its Western Sahara claim”, and asked Tajani to “assess the potential violation of the Code of Conduct and conflict of interest” and to take action. Nothing happened.

Qatargate exposed how the Qatari and Moroccan governments have used various consultancy companies, ‘frontgroups, fake NGOs and even cash payments to promote their cause. Saoudi and United Arab Emirates have used PR firms and think tanks.  There is for example the opaque lobby think tank Bussola Institute with a roster of impressive European honorary board members including former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, former Secretary-General of NATO Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former Prime Ministers of France, François Fillon, as well as former EU Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou.

While it presents itself as a serious research institute on generalised EU-Gulf relations, all its institutional relationships are with the UAE and it plays a 'strategic communications' and influencing role for the country's favoured policy positions. Bussola has not disclosed its source of funding, but in a recent article from a Greek investigative  journalist Mrs Diamantopoulou replied that she was no longer a member, but confirmed that Bussola is lobbying on behalf of the UAE. 

Spanish conservative MEP Antonio López-Istúriz White, chair of the UAE Friendship group since years, often travelled to Dubai and defends the regime.  Early February Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad revealed how members of the EPP have been paid up to 100.000 euro for their ‘services provided’ to the UAE.  

The investigative ‘Organised Crime and Corruption Project’ (OCCRP) recently published a deep dive on how a ‘Kremlin-Linked Group Arranged Payments to various European Politicians of extreme-right parties to Support Russia’s Annexation of Crimea’.

The question is not whether NGOs should apply transparency. The question is why now certain politicians try to divert the essence of the Qatargate-debate to civil society?

See our dedicated Qatargate page here

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