France, Spain and the Czech Republic have refused to approve a draft letter from the Council of the EU to the European Ombudsman on the controversial issue of sponsored council presidencies, a confidential document in the possession of EUobserver revealed.
The episode highlighted the sensitivity of the issue, which affects the sovereignty of member states.
The Council of the EU is the EU institution representing the governments of the Member States. Every six months, a different country chairs the council. Currently, it is Croatia, followed by Germany in the second half of 2020.
In recent years, it has become common for governments to accept cash or in-kind contributions from companies to cover the costs of hosting Presidency events.
The council’s letter follows an Ombudsman’s investigation into the practice.
In the letter, the Secretary General of the Council said that the Council would examine the possibility of putting in place a document on “best practices” – to suggest measures that the Member States could take to prevent sponsorship from damaging the reputation of the EU.
According to an internal council document leaked to EUobserver, not all 27 EU member states could support this commitment at a meeting of the council’s working group.
In a press release, the French delegation underlined the part of the draft letter where it is specified that the council “cannot take charge of the organization of activities which exceed the limits of the powers conferred on it by the treaties”.
“In this context, we doubt that the general secretariat of the council, or the council itself, is justified in fixing guidelines for activities which do not fall within the framework provided for by the treaties or by the internal rules of the council”, indicated the French Declaration.
“In particular, we wonder whether it is not only for the Member State holding the presidency to ensure, under its own responsibility and in the interest of the European Union, that commercial sponsorship of events of this type poses no risk to the reputation of the Council or to the European Union, “he continued.
Spain said it supported “the entire text of the response to the Ombudsman, except for the section in which the preparation of the guidelines is proposed”.
The Czech Republic noted that these guidelines could in principle “be beneficial and add value”, but stated that the letter should have clearly indicated the “non-binding nature of such [a] document ”.
France, Spain and the Czech Republic voted against the draft letter, the final version of which was published by the Ombudsman on 6 May (the wording of the final letter is identical to the draft letter).
Portugal voted in favor, but wished to clarify “that this future guidance note cannot be binding”.
Portugal will succeed Germany as President of the Council on January 1, 2021. France and the Czech Republic will assume the presidency in the first and second semesters of 2022, respectively.
Despite reservations by some member states, the letter was already worded with caution, saying that the Council “would only explore the possibility of providing guidance on best practices so that member states holding future presidencies would be aware of such a letter.” risk when assessing the possible use of sponsorship ”.
He also stressed that “member states would retain ultimate responsibility” and highlighted a distinction between two different types of activities that a board chair usually organizes.
One category contains presidency responsibilities that deal with lawmaking, such as negotiating with other EU institutions on political compromises.
Activities in this category are fully funded from the Council’s budget.
Another category includes informal meetings held in Member States and “activities such as cultural, tourist and scientific events”. Such events are the responsibility of each member state, says the Council letter.
These events are often part of an effort by member states to promote themselves. However, the Ombudsman was concerned that if they are funded by corporate sponsors, this could have bad consequences for the EU as a whole.
Loss of trustworthy
The European Parliament also expressed its concern in a (non-binding) resolution last October.
Parliament regretted that Member States holding the presidency have become a common practice to cover expenses through commercial sponsorship.
She said she was “very concerned about the possible damage to reputation and the risk of loss of confidence that this practice could [European] The Union, its institutions and above all the Council in the eyes of the citizens of the Union “.
MEPs suggested that the council “adopt guidelines to promote financial transparency and independence of presidencies” and “urge the council to consider budgeting for presidencies”.