Bogus thinktanks and transparency evasion at the European Parliament

Nicholas Whyte

By Nicholas Whyte

Nicholas Whyte is a Senior Director in the Brussels office of APCO Worldwide. He is also a member of the Management Committee of EPACA, the European Public Affairs Consultancies’ Association. He has worked in Brussels for 25 years, including eight years in thinktanks.

14 Jun 2024

When the new European Parliament convenes for the first time in the summer, its members will become part of the rich and varied Brussels conversation on policy issues. Most policy professionals operate transparently and in good faith. If your case is ethical and supported by facts, there should be no need for subterfuge or deception.

I spent the first eight years of my Brussels career at thinktanks – the Centre for European Policy Studies and the International Crisis Group. Organisations like these are crucial in policy development. Thinktanks are incubators of innovative ideas, and at their best provide real-time analysis of the impacts of policies inside and outside the EU.

Unfortunately there are exceptions. Genuine thinktanks are transparent about their funding and their work can withstand robust scrutiny. We are seeing an increasing number of cases where fake thinktanks are set up as campaigning tools by other interests, with no transparency about their funding, no commitment to the EU’s own transparency rules and no serious intellectual content other than propaganda for their paymasters.

Back in 2018, Brussels media exposed a fake thinktank whose postal address was a co-working space in Anderlecht and whose output consisted largely of recycling news articles from other sources, without giving them credit. Those with longer memories will recall a bogus thinktank of twenty years ago which specialised in observing elections in oppressive regimes like Belarus and Transnistria, and finding that they met or surpassed international standards, contrary to the experiences of all other observers.

More recently, and notoriously, in the “Qatargate” scandal Pier Antonio Panzeri, a former Italian MEP, was able to channel payments from external governments to try and influence the European Parliament through a fake NGO called “Fight Impunity”, which failed to sign up to the EU’s Transparency Register. Panzeri has already pleaded guilty to corruption in a deal with prosecutors.

Another recent case has similarities to the above. In May 2023 a supposed thinktank report was circulated within the European Parliament, making fictitious claims about the Swiss company Dentsu Tracking and its staffer Jan Hoffmann.

To give some background: Dentsu Tracking, based in Switzerland, specializes in providing track and trace technology to governments, which helps overcome control, security and accountability shortcomings in highly regulated supply chains. Its clients include public authorities such as the EU-27 Member States and the UK government. The European Commission awarded a 5- year contract to Dentsu Tracking in 2018, through a normal process of public procurement, to establish and run a system to monitor the entire EU tobacco supply chain, as mandated by the 2014 Tobacco Products Directive. In 2023, the company successfully won another 5-year term, again through standard public procurement.

In the meantime, Dentsu Tracking had recruited a former Commission Policy Officer, Jan Hoffmann, in late 2020. Joining from the Medical Devices Unit of DG SANTE, he was hired to help the company further improve and expand its technology portfolio and ensure that government client objectives are best met.

In late 2022 and throughout 2023, a small group of French MEPs - Anne-Sophie Pelletier (Left), Pierre Larrouturou (S&D) and the late Michèle Rivasi (Green) - raised a number of fictitious issues in official discussions with the European Commission and the Ombudsman, culminating in an Oral Question debate in the European Parliament in February 2024.

It was alleged that Jan Hoffmann in his Commission role had awarded the contract to Dentsu Tracking without public procurement, and that his recruitment was therefore somehow connected with the Commission’s award of the contract to Dentsu Tracking. The Commission publicly rejected these allegations, for which no evidence was ever presented as far as I am aware, and confirmed Hoffmann’s non-involvement in the award process, repeatedly. It was also alleged that Dentsu Tracking is part of the tobacco industry (it is not) and that Jan Hoffmann had been lobbying the EU on Dentsu Tracking’s behalf (he did not).

At APCO Worldwide we have been advising Dentsu Tracking on how best to deal with this troublesome situation. Ms Pelletier accordingly turned her attention to us, alleging in a 26 April 2024 statement that we currently work for the tobacco company Philip Morris (we don’t), and that we had attempted to infiltrate a meeting that she organised earlier that month (we didn’t). 

Amid scrutiny of the European Commission’s transparency, the Ombudsman has been prepared to take action. In December 2023, an Ombudsman report found “maladministration” in the Commission’s “failure to ensure transparency” when it comes to meetings with tobacco lobbyists. The inquiry found that numerous Commission departments had failed to adequately declare meetings with such lobbyists, but in fact singled out DG SANTE as “the only one that proactively publishes records of all such meetings with its officials irrespective of grade seniority”.

Not surprisingly, in the case of Dentsu Tracking and Jan Hoffmann, the Ombudsman was satisfied to take no further action on a complaint submitted by Michele Rivasi. 

What, then, is behind this campaign of disinformation? The allegations against Dentsu in the Parliament were published by a May 2023 report, ostensibly drafted and promoted by a supposed thinktank called the “Fondation Démocratie et Gouvernance (FDG)”. (Much of this report has now been re-cooked as a “White Paper published by the MEPs in May 2024.) The FDG has supported pro-Russian politicians and causes in the past, and has opposed EU sanctions against Russia and Russians following the 2014 invasion of Ukraine. Their sudden interest in tobacco was therefore a little surprising.

After we started looking into the matter, the FDG’s website hastily rebranded as a rather blank shop window for the “African Governance Initiative” (distinct from Tony Blair’s similarly named “Africa Governance Initiative”), but it is straightforward to find archived text from before its revamp. The physical location previously given as its address is a serviced office space on Square de Meeûs, where there is in fact no FDG office; the telephone number given was +45, the country code for Denmark, and then the numbers 12345678 in sequence, a fake phone number.

It is a very similar situation to the “Fight Impunity” NGO created as part of the Qatargate scandal – an organisation with no apparent reason for existence other than to lobby MEPs on behalf of undeclared clients. Neither “Fight Impunity” nor the FDG ever signed up to the Transparency Register, and neither declared their funding sources, a clear violation of the ethical principles of lobbying.

MEPs have a duty to hold the Commission to account, and quite rightly have the privilege of exercising freedom of speech in the chamber without fear of prosecution. The MEPs who were deceived by the FDG into campaigning against Dentsu Tracking were foolish, but not dishonourable. Their genuine interest in keeping tabs on the tobacco lobby and promoting transparency was exploited by a thinktank with no physical presence, whose record of actual thinking is very flimsy indeed – and by whoever its real backers were.

The Parliament’s growing influence makes it an increasingly attractive target for unscrupulous actors, and MEPs need to be on their guard. Let’s hope that the new cohort of MEPs can exercise the necessary due diligence, and that bad actors will be detected and exposed.

Note: Anne-Sophie Pelletier MEP has published the following right of response to this opinion article

On June 14, 2024, The Parliament Magazine published an article commissioned by Dentsu Tracking and sponsored by its lobbyist, Nicholas Whyte. The author’s article assumes the role of a special prosecutor for transparency and criticizes parliamentary democracy for being overly susceptible to the influence of alleged bad actors.

Being personally implicated in this article, which details what is described as a perfect smokescreen guide, I must refute the derogatory remarks about myself and my many colleagues from all democratic families. It is important to recall that over 35 MEPs requested more transparency from the European Commission in February 2024.

As an MEP and like my colleagues, I receive dozens of daily messages from citizens, think tanks and NGOs, challenging us on numerous and varied topics. I’m willing to share my mailbox with the author where he will find no exchanges with any unregistered organizations. However, I would be happy to provide him with messages from the London office of his company, APCO Worldwide, written by an individual not listed in the Transparency Register, where I am “invited” to amend my press release of 26 April 2024. If APCO wishes to meet to discuss this matter, I invite them to formally request an appointment rather than lobbying through emails sent across the English Channel.

Moreover, Mr. Whyte claims that the White Paper, authored by myself together with my late colleague Michèle Rivasi, has been dictated from the shadows of influence. I must clarify that this was a long-term collaborative effort with recognized anti-tobacco organizations, including the Smoke-Free Partnership, the Alliance Against Tobacco, the University of Bath, and Olivier Milleron.

These conspiracy theories, suggesting that dozens of MEPs are mere puppets of an alleged black hand, do not hold up to the chronological facts. In March 2020, the OCCRP had already raised concerns about the lack of transparency in tobacco traceability, three years before claims emerged of a mysterious organization providing a turnkey white paper to MEPs.

Similarly, Michèle Rivasi had already denounced the Hoffman case in a letter to the European Ombudsman in October 2022 independently from any organization. Subsequently, we sought answers through various initiatives, including parliamentary questions, a speech in the plenary session and roundtables. It is insulting to insinuate that parliamentarians and their teams are merely echoing positions written by external actors.

What should concern everyone is the significant investment in hiring lobbyists whose tactic is to denounce transparency evasion at the European Parliament without ever addressing their client's transparency failures.

Since the author values facts, here are some of them. His client registered in the Transparency Register only after the plenary debate on his opaque actions. Why not earlier, in 2017, when he secured a contract from the European Commission? Or in 2023, when the same contract was extended, allegedly through tenders. Where can I find the documentary evidence? Transparency should be paramount for a company earning millions of euros through a Commission contract, yet no trace of Dentsu appears before spring 2024.

Many questions remain about the Jan Hoffman case. He joined Dentsu in 2020 as Regulatory Affairs and Compliance Director. However, the author insists that he does not interact with European institutions, despite being Dentsu’s only client outside the United Kingdom. What was the exact role of Jan Hoffman in DG Health? Why is it no longer included in the Commission’s contractor’s organization chart? We have repeatedly questioned it on this issue, and the only answer is that the former contractor did not participate in the decision to award the contract. Nonetheless, he was involved in drafting the specifications and overseeing the project before joining Dentsu.

Many points are raised to discredit and delegitimize our actions without clarifying theirs.

Thus, despite the work initiated by José BOVÉ several years ago, it is crucial that the new generation of MEPs continue to act as watchdogs of the European Parliament in this field.

Anne-Sophie Pelletier,
Member of the European Parliament