There was something marvellously sleazy about the controversy that led John Dalli to resign as the EU's health commissioner. Combining hints of secret payments and improper access and a proven burglary, the whole affair demolished the myth that Brussels is boring.
It was especially satisfying to see solid evidence - some produced by Dalli himself - that the tobacco industry is willing to grease the palms of those lobbyists who can provide it with one-on-one contact with the powerful.
The most proper response to this scandal would be for the EU institutions to collectively decide that all representatives of cigarette and snus companies are personae non gratae. Corporations that make and sell weapons of mass destruction should have no role in determining public policy.
By definition, every cent that lobbyists receive from the tobacco industry is dirty money. So why are some of these grubby guns for hire treated as respectable "experts" on European politics?
Ireland's self-proclaimed leading "think tank" on EU policy - the Institute of European Affairs - is chaired by Brendan Halligan. A former grandee in the Irish Labour Party, Halligan regularly hobnobs with the political and business elite in both Dublin and Brussels. The institute's glossy brochures are crammed with photographs of him dining with presidents and EU commissioners.
Halligan's history as a flunky can be found in a treasure trove of documents released because of litigation against cigarette makers. A 1983 memo from the Irish Tobacco Manufacturers' Advisory Committee details how Halligan, then a recent addition to the European Parliament, undertook to "definitely push" a proposal that the cigarette industry had made on saving duty free shops within the European Community. The lobby group was pleased with Halligan's commitment as it distinguished him from others in the assembly's Socialist group, "which tends to be ill-disposed to duty free facilities", the memo added.
Right to kill?
After Halligan stepped away from frontline politics, he was rewarded for his loyalty to Big Tobacco with lucrative contracts. His firm, Consultants in Public Affairs (CIPA), advised the Confederation of European Community Cigarette Manufacturers (CECCM), over how to court the Brussels institutions. During the 1990s, he spent a great deal of time trying to prevent the harmonisation of taxes on cigarettes and the introduction of a ban on tobacco advertising. In a discussion paper that he wrote for cigarette makers in 1995, he expressed concern about how public unease with smoking by children could lead to revulsion against the whole industry. "The antis are taking advantage of these trends and are using the children issue to attack the industry across a broad front," he wrote. "Measures are proposed under the guise of protecting children but the real objective is to leverage limitations on the adult market. This latest piece of social engineering has a high potential for success. It gives the antis an emotional fire power, which is difficult to counter."
A letter to the European Commission that Halligan drafted for the trade association in 1998 stated: "as manufacturers of a legal product with nearly 100 million consumers, we believe that we have a right, as well as a duty, to be part of the policy-making process and to be consulted whenever our interests are at stake".
The European Policy Centre (EPC) - one of the best known "think tanks" in Brussels - helped further that agenda by setting up a "risk forum" financed by British American Tobacco (BAT). In 2003, the Commission accepted the risk forum's chief recommendation: that cigarette makers would be consulted about activities affecting them. Today, the EPC regularly organises debates on health policy. I recently put it to Annika Ahtonen, who runs the centre's health programme, that it was ironic for the EPC to pose as a champion of public health, when it had been funded by the cigarette industry. "That was a long time ago," she said. Ahtonen might like to peruse the EPC's latest annual report. On page 19, it lists BAT and Philip Morris as two of its current funders.
Seven pages later, Pavel Telicka is named as one of the EPC's "senior advisers". Telicka was appointed the Czech Republic's first EU commissioner in 2004 and was given partial responsibility for health policy. He wasn't long in that job, however, before he was hired by the aforementioned BAT. According to that firm's website, he is still heading its "social reporting process" - an initiative designed to ensure that a firm's "ethical and environmental performance" is accounted for "in a similar way" to its financial performance.
Telicka does not appear to have been chastised in any way for embracing an industry he was tasked with regulating. On the contrary, he remains an official adviser to the Commission as part of its "high level group" on the "reduction of administrative burdens".
Meanwhile, the Trans Atlantic Business Dialogue (TABD) was asked by the European Commission in 1995 to facilitate contacts between chief executives and politicians in both the EU and US. Its Brussels office was until recently run by Jeffries Briginshaw, who campaigned hard against moves by Australia to require that cigarettes are sold in plain packages. In his letters to the Canberra authorities, Briginshaw has neglected to mention a salient fact: he used to work directly for BAT and that company is one of the most active participants in the TABD.
Far from being shunned, Big Tobacco is embraced by leading EU policy-makers. This is the real scandal.
•First published by New Europe, 18-24 November 2012.
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