The European Commission hushed up an attempt by former Commissioner Neelie Kroes to secure an exemption to ethics rules that would allow her to lobby on behalf of Uber, it has been revealed.
Rather than turn down her request to lobby for the car hire firm before the required “cooling off period” had expired, the Commission pushed her to withdraw the request so that there was no public record of it ever happening, according to an investigative report.
Journalists at Follow the Money (FTM) have uncovered that Kroes wrote a letter to Jean-Claude Juncker, the Commission President at the time, asking to be allowed to publicly lobby on behalf of the US-based taxi app company during the cooling-off period.
Former Commissioners who want a new position in the private sector need permission from the EC during that period. Until 2018, it was 18 months, since then, it has been extended to two years.
When Kroes asked for this permission, the EC’s internal ethics committee advised the full Commission to deny it on the grounds that Kroes would not be upholding the “honesty and discretion” that the EU required of her as a former Commissioner.
After receiving the committee’s advice, its secretary-general then told Kroes she ought to retract her request.
He pushed her not to start working for Uber until after the 18-month period. Otherwise, there would be “a serious possibility” that the College of Euro Commissioners would take “a similar position” to the advisory committee and would then issue a formal ban.
It appears that the secretary-general asked the former Commissioner to withdraw the request ahead of time, rather than having the EC issue a formal negative judgment, thus leaving outsiders in the dark about requests the Commission declines.
Kroes then wrote to Junker that the advice to withdraw the request “does not correspond” to the applicable procedures. It was up to the EC to take a decision, she stressed.
Kroes also wrote that she was “fully aware” that such a decision would be published in the records of EC meetings and thus become “publicly available information”.
This apparently caused her little concern: “I do not intend to circumvent the principle of transparency by withdrawing my notification,” she wrote.
Juncker replied that he would be “very grateful” if she did withdraw her request, “otherwise we would have to take a negative decision”. Kroes then did so in December 2015.
This kept the public and official Commission institutions unaware of the fact that Kroes had already petitioned the EC for authorisation to work as a lobbyist, and that the Commission intended to deny her request.
It was only after the so-called Uber Files scandal broke that the rest of the world learned what happened. The Uber Files was a global investigation revealing how, between 2013 and 2017, the firm secretly lobbied governments across the world.
Mark MacGann, a former lobbyist who led Uber’s efforts to win over governments across Europe and who later leaked Uber Files documents, told FTM that if the situation regarding Kroes had been revealed, it would have scared off Uber and the firm would have at least postponed working with Kroes.
He also said: “I don’t think Neelie is a unique case.”
Kroes is accused of helping Uber by lobbying Dutch politicians, including Prime Minister Mark Rutte, during her 18-month cooling-off period.
An Uber lobbyist advised colleagues that her relationship was “highly confidential and should not be discussed outside this group”. Another note stated that her name should never appear on any document, internal or external, according to press reports.
Follow the Money asked for public documents under a freedom of information request and discovered there were three other instances where the ethical committee gave the same advice in 2015 and which were retracted and never made public. The EC refuses to provide further insight, citing reasons of privacy. “The allegations do not relate to a lack or weakness of the rules or procedures in force but to an alleged inability to respect them,” the executive said.