Recent revelations from documents obtained by POLITICO expose a nexus between consultants working for companies under European Union (EU) antitrust probes and the hospitality extended to EU competition officials. The leaked documents shed light on the influence of corporate lobbying in academic-style conferences, where legal and economic discussions take place in opulent settings, funded by various external entities.
The European Commission’s competition unit, responsible for overseeing significant deals and investigating major corporations globally, has traditionally been a target for corporate lobbying efforts. These endeavors often unfold at conferences held in luxurious venues, such as Lake Como, featuring fine dining and high-end accommodations, reported Politico.
One of the main draws for such events is the participation of a speaker from the Commission. However, due to budget constraints, the Commission is becoming increasingly hesitant to finance these trips. Annual forecasts disclosed in response to access to documents requests by POLITICO reveal that the competition unit earmarked €560,000 for its officials’ travel in 2022, a considerable reduction from the pre-pandemic budget of over €880,000 in 2019. These budgets encompass travel for meetings with regulators worldwide, as well as missions like surprise cartel raids on companies.
Commission spokesperson Lea Zuber clarified, “As a rule, mission costs are almost always covered by the EU budget.” However, for lower-priority appearances, Zuber noted that “under specific conditions, some expenses, or part of these expenses, which would otherwise be paid entirely from the EU budget, may be covered by third parties.”
This is where a network of consultancies comes into play.
In the revealed documents, it is disclosed that economic consultancy Compass Lexecon financed two trips for Commission staffers to attend conferences in Oxford, England, and Como, Italy. RBB Economics sponsored a Commission economist’s travel to the opening of its new Helsinki office. Charles River Associates, known for advising Microsoft on its acquisition of gaming publisher Activision, covered the travel expenses for an antitrust official attending a conference in London. The industry lobby Medicines for Europe contributed to the costs of bringing a senior official to its annual conference in Barcelona.
These revelations raise questions about the potential influence exerted by external entities on EU competition officials and the potential implications for the impartiality of antitrust investigations. As the Commission grapples with tighter budgets, the intersection between corporate interests and public duties is likely to face increased scrutiny.
The leaked information underscores the delicate balance that regulatory bodies must maintain as they navigate corporate lobbying efforts while upholding their commitment to fair and unbiased antitrust investigations.