Uber, Bayer and Disney, among others, finance the major European political parties with generous donations. It is a legal practice which raises questions. (note: On 13 March, the ALDE party said that it would turn down donations from companies.)
(Note: this article was published by Le Monde on 10 March. On 13 March, the ALDE party said that it would turn down donations from companies.)
The omnipresence of lobbies within the European institutions is widely known. Less known is that big business and industry finance European parties directly.
This reality was brought up on 7 March on French radio station RTL by Marine Le Pen, who denounced the financing, by “lobbies” and the agrochemical giant Bayer Monsanto, of “the party of Emmanuel Macron in the European Parliament”, namely the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.
The accusation by the leader of France’s Rassemblement National (RN) is somewhat correct, with one qualification: La République en Marche (LRM) is not officially a member of the ALDE, although the parties are very close and have an alliance for the upcoming EU elections. It is true that in recent years ALDE has received major donations from Bayer, Uber, Google and the Swiss pesticide giant Syngenta, among others.
For the year 2018 alone, this liberal centrist party received € 122 000 from eight multinationals and lobbies. All paid an entry fee of between € 7000 and € 18 000 in order to take part in the party’s annual congress, in Madrid in November 2018, or in colloquiums.
For example, representatives of Bayer and Walt Disney took part in a debate on “the future of trade, investment and innovation” with a European commissioner, a Finnish government minister and a German MP; Uber and Stuart participated in a roundtable discussion on “flexibility and the future of work”; and the director-general of the food-processing lobby FoodDrinkEurope gave his opinion on the “single market after 2019”. Asked by Le Monde, Bayer explains that it has co-sponsored ALDE congresses so as to “facilitate a wide debate on various subjects including innovation, agriculture and trade”, but also in order “to organize events on the fringes of congresses and to showcase the company”.
“The practice is common and perfectly legal [unlike in France, for example, where political financing by businesses is illegal]: we open our debates to these companies, who take part in return for paying the costs of organizing the events”, explains Didrik de Schaetzen, communications director at ALDE.
In its Brussels mindset, where there are less hang-ups about lobbies, the party makes a virtue of its opening to “stakeholders”. “We also have relationships with NGOs”, hastens to add Mr de Schaetzen, although none of them had a ticket to the Madrid congress.
A form of lobbying?
This € 122 000 represents a small fraction of the ALDE’s budget of € 3.5 M, but is very important for the party. Such donations from private business, which by strange coincidence often brush up against the annual limit of € 18 000, allow ALDE to stay within European rules. Alongside their public financing, the rules oblige parties to raise at least 15% of their funds from private donors, MEPs, or related activities.
Do these cheques from Bayer, Google and company endanger the independence of ALDE’s 68 MEPs? “No”, says Didrik de Schaetzen. “Taking part in a party congress is different from lobbying an individual MEP.”
Other parties are concerned
The centrist party is not the only one to benefit from such largesse. According to calculations by Le Monde, during the last legislature some 92 companies donated € 1 034 506 to five major European political parties.
The Martens Centre, a think tank of the European People’s Party (EPP), received € 61 000 for hosting four multinationals (AT&T, Walt Disney, Microsoft and UPS) at various events, including the PPE’s annual congress in Helsinki in November 2018.
The same year, the Eurosceptics of the group European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) received more than € 102 000 from nine companies (AT&T, Triple A, Estiom, MTI, Wastech, Galerie Gema, QED Systems, Without Limits Immobiliare and AWS Holding) and € 47 000 from various lobbies and foundations.
Multinationals are also involved indirectly in European politics. Every year the American telecoms giant AT&T sponsors, for € 12 000, a study by the Fondation Européenne d’Etudes Progressistes, a think tank attached to the Party of European Socialists. Its general secretary, Ernst Stetter, sees “no problem of independence” in this. “I would not accept that anyone interfere in the content of our studies”, he says.
None of this is a problem for Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF). The party of Marine Le Pen, with 42 MEPs from 8 countries, has received almost no private donations. It lives solely off its public financing (€ 543 000) and the generosity of its members (€ 124 000).