EU seeks clarification from former EC vice-president over Uber revelations

EU executive responds following claims Neelie Kroes lobbied Dutch PM and others

The EU executive has announced it will write to its former vice-president Neelie Kroes “for clarification” following revelations that she secretly helped Uber lobby the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, and a string of other national politicians.

The European Commission has been facing calls to open an immediate inquiry and “defend the EU’s integrity” in the wake of the reports, which showed that Kroes called Dutch government authorities about Uber less than six months after leaving her post as the EU’s top official on internet policy.

The calls for an investigation were part of the growing fallout from the Uber files, a trove of 124,000 documents exposing the ethically questionable practices that allowed the cab-hailing company to barge into new markets around the world.

In France, opposition parties have attacked the president, Emmanuel Macron, over his past help for the company, while in Italy, former prime minister Matteo Renzi came under pressure to clarify his alleged involvement.

The leak shines a light on Kroes, a veteran Dutch politician, who promised to do “my utmost” to help the company arrange a meeting with a senior European Commission official, despite a ban on lobbying her former colleagues at the time.

Kroes has denied any wrongdoing and said she did “not have any formal nor informal role at Uber before that particular date of May 2016,” when it was announced she was starting as chair of the company’s public policy advisory board.

The Uber files is a global investigation based on a trove of 124,000 documents that were leaked to the Guardian by Mark MacGann, Uber's former chief lobbyist in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The data consist of emails, iMessages and WhatsApp exchanges between the Silicon Valley giant's most senior executives, as well as memos, presentations, notebooks, briefing papers and invoices.

The leaked records cover 40 countries and span 2013 to 2017, the period in which Uber was aggressively expanding across the world. They reveal how the company broke the law, duped police and regulators, exploited violence against drivers and secretly lobbied governments across the world.

To facilitate a global investigation in the public interest, the Guardian shared the data with 180 journalists in 29 countries via the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The investigation was managed and led by the Guardian with the ICIJ.

In a statement, Uber said: "We have not and will not make excuses for past behaviour that is clearly not in line with our present values. Instead, we ask the public to judge us by what we’ve done over the last five years and what we will do in the years to come."

The commission said on Monday it had “decided to send a letter to the former vice-president Kroes for a clarification on the information presented in the media” while declining to go into details about that “bilateral” communication. The commission is “not the type of institution that jumps [to] conclusions quickly”, the spokesperson added.

The EU’s transparency watchdog sounded a more urgent note, describing the revelations as “concerning” but not surprising. “Brussels is the second lobbying capital of the world, and these types of tactics are widely used by large companies in Europe,” EU ombudsman Emily O’Reilly said in a statement to the Guardian.

She called for “proper enforcement” and improvement to existing rules. “There is increasing public awareness, thanks also to investigative reporting on the matter, of the damage caused to the EU administration if ex-commissioners use their networks and profile to advantage the private sector and at times in clear conflict of interest situations.”

Paul Tang, a Dutch Social Democrat MEP, who chairs the European parliament’s tax committee, said he would file a complaint to the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen. “The EU Commission must come into action and defend the EU’s integrity,” he tweeted.

Von der Leyen herself was accused of slow progress in setting up an independent EU ethics body to eliminate conflicts of interests for all former officials and politicians moving on to other jobs.

“They [commission officials] are dragging their feet as much as they can,” said Vitor Teixeira at Transparency International’s Brussels office. “There is a lot of room for improvement in the [current EU ethics] rules, so it was never a question of if, but when the next scandal would happen.”

He added: “We would definitely call for an independent investigation to see whether Ms Kroes has broken any rules and if she should be sanctioned.”

Under current EU rules, former commissioners are banned from lobbying serving commissioners and their top aides for two years after stepping down, but there is no ban on contacting national politicians on behalf of a private company. When Kroes left the commission in 2014, the cooling-off period was 18 months. She, like current commissioners, has a lifelong obligation to act with “integrity and discretion” on leaving the EU executive.

Any former commissioner found in breach of the rules can be deprived of their EU pension.

As the fallout rippled across Europe, Renzi faced questions about his alleged involvement in the scandal after his name emerged as someone the company had allegedly sought to gain access to.

“The journalistic investigation into the systematic violation of laws by Uber is an international scandal to which we must react strongly,” Mario Furore and Sabrina Pignedoli, MEPs with the Five Star Movement, said in a statement.

The leak suggests Renzi had been “briefed in detail” by an Uber adviser on Italy’s proposed legislation and Uber’s own preferred amendments to it.

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A spokesperson for Renzi’s office said the former prime minister did not believe he ever spoke to the Uber adviser, and that if the company had even been “touched upon in a conversation”, it happened “as a side topic”.

In Ireland, the leaks will raise fresh questions over a recent pledge by the deputy prime minister, Leo Varadkar, who said he would like to “look again” at opening the market to Uber.

The files show how the cab-hailing company tried, but ultimately failed, to win leverage with Varadkar’s predecessor, Enda Kenny, and former finance minister Michael Noonan.

At one point, one of its public affairs advisers suggested persuading former US president Bill Clinton or someone from the Irish-linked Kennedy dynasty to endorse their services by offering a free Uber service when they were on one of their visits to Ireland.

In Hungary, also, Uber’s lobbying efforts ran into the sand. The company hired a lobbyist with extensive government connections, believed to be close to Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law, István Tiborcz. As the independent website Direkt36 has reported, a government transport official cancelled a meeting with Uber at the last minute and then refused to answer the lobbyist’s calls, despite having previously being said they were available.


Jennifer Rankin in Brussels, Angela Giuffrida in Rome and Lisa O'Carroll

The GuardianTramp

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