Uber leak latest sign of weaknesses in European lobbying rules

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistThursday 25 August 2022

In July, thousands of leaked confidential files exposed the extent to which Uber lobbied senior legislators across Europe at undeclared meetings to secure lucrative contracts and disrupt the continent’s taxi industry. ‘It's one of the most high-profile and wide-ranging examples of conduct that appears to push the boundaries,’ says Deirdre O’Mahony, Officer of the IBA Anti-Corruption Committee and a partner at Arthur Cox in Dublin.

The mass leak appeared to show former European Commission vice-president Neelie Kroes assisting the company during the 18-month ‘cooling-off’ period after she’d left the Commission in a potential breach of EU ethics rules. Kroes, who later joined Uber in May 2016 as chair of its public policy advisory board, denies any wrongdoing. She says she ‘did not have any formal nor informal role’ at the tech firm prior to her board appointment. Neither Uber, nor Salesforce – which also appointed Kroes to its board in May 2016 – responded to Global Insight’s requests for comment.

Global Insight also approached the European Commission for comment about the Uber leak. A spokesperson said both the Commission and its members must be ‘completely independent,’ adding that after their term in office members ‘have a right to engage in work and to pursue a freely chosen or accepted occupation…as well as a right to privacy’, but that these rights must ‘be balanced with their obligations during and after the end of the mandate and the general interest of the Union in general.’

The spokesperson confirmed that the Commission had requested and received ‘clarifications’ from Kroes ‘on the information presented in the media’ and was in the process of ‘analysing’ the information.

O’Mahony regularly advises clients on lobbying regulation and compliance and says the Uber case has exposed the risks around lobbying practices. ‘You'll always have actors who may not do the right thing and who will push the boundaries,’ she says. ‘That's where enforcement and enforcement activity can become quite important.’

It has really brought to light how lobbying can work in real time

Deirdre O’Mahony
Officer, IBA Anti-Corruption Committee

As Uber becomes the latest company to be scrutinised for its lobbying practices, there are renewed calls for reform across Europe to boost greater transparency and stricter rules governing the ‘revolving door’ between public and private office.

O’Mahony says this is an issue even in Ireland, which is often considered to have one of the most progressive lobbying laws in Europe and where draft amendments are currently being progressed to strengthen existing legislation.

‘The draft legislation that is underway follows a number of high-profile examples over the years of public officials moving to lobbying positions, allegedly before the 12-month cooling-off period officially ended,’ says O’Mahony. ‘One of the key focuses of the draft legislation is to enhance the enforcement regime and sanctions available for breach of that cooling-off period, which is quite short by international standards, in circumstances where it has been reported that there have been a number of examples of individuals who appear not to have complied in practice.’

There’s no indication the Uber leak will increase the appetite to pass the proposed legislation. However, O’Mahony believes it has raised awareness amongst the public and public officials of the broader purpose of lobbying and its effects on the democratic process. ‘It has really brought to light how lobbying can work in real time,’ she says. ‘That will ultimately help in improving the regulatory regime both across the UK, Ireland and the EU as well as enforcement of those regimes and therefore, may actually result in quite positive outcomes from an overall enforcement perspective.’

Similar leaks have put pressure on other governments to introduce much-needed lobbying reform. In Cyprus, a package of bills was finally passed in February 2022 after languishing in the country’s parliament for four years. Nicolas Kyriakides, a partner at Harris Kyriakides in Nicosia, says the Cyprus Papers – a 2020 cash-for-passports scandal exposed by Al Jazeera’s investigation unit – gave the government the impetus to push the long-awaited legislation through parliament. ‘It was a huge scandal,’ he says. ‘It was something that created a lot of negative atmosphere in Cyprus and how Cyprus was seen internationally as well.’

The leak provoked mass anti-corruption protests outside Cyprus’ parliament in October 2020 and prompted an inquiry in 2021. Four people, including the former president of Cyprus’ Parliament, were charged in August 2022 with conspiracy to defraud the state and undue influence over public officials. They are due to stand trial in September.

The new package of reforms includes establishing a national anti-corruption agency to carry out real-time audits on politicians, creating a registry for lobbyists and introducing greater protections for whistleblowers.

Although the registry has yet to be implemented, Kyriakides is optimistic about both its and the anti-corruption authority’s potential to transform the lobbying landscape in Cyprus. ‘The lobbying registry appears to go beyond the expected conditions and incorporates a variety of restrictions and requirements to ensure that lobbying practices are carried out transparently,’ he says. ‘The rules, if applied faithfully, will rule out lobbying behind closed doors [and] also act as a catapult for pressure groups wishing to serve personal interests.’

Kyriakides says these developments, combined with reforms to Cyprus’ overall justice system passed in July, mark a turning point for the rule of law in the country. ‘There will be a three-tiered justice system in Cyprus for the first time in history with the introduction of an intermediate Court of Appeal,’ he says. ‘Also, there will be a separate Constitutional Court which will provide more specialisation in the adjudication of constitutional issues. In addition to the new civil procedure rules, e-justice, a Commercial Court and Admiralty Court and the effort to reduce the backlog and thus the delays, the justice system in Cyprus will indeed enter a new era.’

Despite progress in some jurisdictions, the Uber leak suggests there’s still room for improvement to prevent the abuse of lobbying practices across Europe. The Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) – the Council of Europe’s (CoE) anti-corruption monitoring agency – said as much in its annual report in June, calling on governments to increase transparency and accountability to ‘strengthen public confidence in political systems, the public administration and indeed in democracy.’

Image credit: agcreativelab/AdobeStock.com

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