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Finland in spotlight as EU authorities probe Council presidency business links

The European Ombudsman is investigating corporate sponsorship deals as Finland’s BMW-sponsored leadership of the EU Council gets underway.

Skylt med texten Finland och Europeiska unionen.
Finland's six month presidency of the EU is sponsored by the German car manufacturer BMW. Image: Mostphotos

Private businesses sponsoring the EU presidency are set to continue with German carmaker BMW supporting Finland’s leadership of the Council of the European Union.

Finland’s EU presidency secretariat confirmed that the German car maker is providing 100 vehicles to transport delegations during EU presidency events in Helsinki.

This week European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly opened an investigation into the practice, saying the Council “does not have in place guidelines” to regulate it.

Finnish Green Party MEP Heidi Hautala was the lead signatory on a letter from MEPs who oppose such sponsorships.

Critics say sponsorships are a “conflict of interest”

“100 MEPs addressed some months ago the incoming Finnish Council presidency, asking it to refrain from commercial sponsorship, only to discover soon that BMW was going to sponsor the Finnish presidency with cars,” Hautala told Yle News.

“There is a clear conflict of interest between the sponsorship by BMW and the Council as lawmaker,” Hautala said.

Story continues after photo.

Heidi Hautala
File photo of Finnish MEP Heidi Hautala. Image: AOP

Sponsorship of the rotating six-month presidency was branded “politically damaging” by MEPs in a letter which called on the Finnish government to “refuse all corporate sponsorship of the Finnish presidency and make a proposal to other member states that all future presidencies agree to such a rule.”

In a statement to Yle News, the government said no money changed hands as part of its deal with BMW and that the manufacturer was only providing vehicles, not drivers or fuel. It did not disclose the equivalent monetary value of the sponsorship agreement.

No guidance on sponsorships for EU member states

In a letter addressed to Secretary-General of the EU Council Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen and seen by Yle News, the Ombudsman said she was opening an inquiry into corporate sponsorship of EU presidencies after receiving a complaint from food industry NGO Foodwatch International about Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of Romania’s EU presidency in the first half of 2019.

The complaint is based on the claim that the Council of the European Union “does not have in place guidelines when it comes to Council presidencies being sponsored by private companies.”

In response, the Council said that sponsorship deals with private companies were “in principle, a matter for the member state authorities concerned.”

MEP Hautala welcomed the Ombudsman’s move.

“I am happy to see that the Ombudsman has now opened an inquiry to this sponsorship which indeed can lead to dependency on undue commercial interests,” she said.

The European Ombudsman is the authority responsible for promoting transparency and accountability in European Union decision making.

No change during this presidency

Finnish authorities say they do not intend to raise the issue of corporate sponsorships during their presidency.

In a statement first reported by Brussels-based website EUObserver, and repeated by officials to Yle News, a government spokeswoman said, “we do not foresee any discussions about corporate sponsorship of EU presidencies with other member states.”

Anja Laisi, head of the Secretariat for Finland’s presidency of the Council of the EU, defended the decision to partner with BMW.

In a statement to Yle News she said, “We have selected meeting venues that are easy to reach by public transportation. However, ministers can rarely use public transportation due to scheduling and security reasons, and we therefore organise car transportation for them.”

“Following an EU-wide call for tenders, the Secretariat for Finland’s presidency concluded a contract with Oy BMW Suomi Ab – the Finnish subsidiary of BMW AG. No other contracts have been signed for the Presidency period,” she said.

Asked whether representatives of BMW would receive opportunities to meet with European political figures as a consequence of the deal, Ms Laiti said, “Representatives of BMW do not have opportunities to meet with Finnish government ministers or political representatives during the Finnish presidency as part of the contract to provide the vehicles or otherwise related to this contract.”

“Finnish civil servants – responsible only for practical arrangements for the presidency - are in contact with representatives of BMW as part of the management of the contract.”

BMW’s EU Commission allegations

In April BMW was one of three car makers accused of breaching EU competition regulations by working together to delay the introduction of new, emissions-reducing technologies in their vehicles.

In a statement in April, EU Competition Commissioner Margarethe Vestager said, “companies can cooperate in many ways to improve the quality of their products. However, EU competition rules do not allow them to collude on exactly the opposite: not to improve their products, not to compete on quality.”

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Margrethe Vestager
EU Competition Commissioner Margarethe Vestager speaking at the Slush event in Helsinki. Image: Yle News / Tom Bateman

Responding to the Commission’s allegations, BMW said, “The BMW Group will contest the EU Commission’s allegations with all legal means if necessary.”

Setting out Finland’s aims for its presidency, Prime Minister Antti Rinne (SDP) told Parliament the main goal would be to commit the EU to carbon neutrality by 2050.

Speaking in June, Mr Rinne said: “A key priority of Finland’s presidency is the EU’s global leadership in climate action,” adding that the EU should become “the world’s most competitive and socially inclusive low-carbon economy.”

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