25 years of CEO
We offer you this bird's eye view of Corporate Europe Observatory's activities over the past 25 years, from our foundation in 1997 all the up to the present day.
We've dug out a couple of highlights from each year of our existence, though of course, this covers a fraction of our work and what we have achieved.
On the one hand, we would love for all the issues CEO works on to be solved. On the other hand, we suspect that, from climate justice to food and agriculture, from public services to health policy, we still have many more years of campaign work ahead of us!
Click here to read “CEO chronology 1997-2012”
CEO celebrated its 15th anniversary with the conference 'EU in crisis: analysis, resistance and alternatives'. Over 300 people from across Europe came to Brussels to take part in discussion and strategising. As a follow-up a network was launched to counter the EU's neoliberal crisis policies, centred around austerity, privatisation, and other neoliberal reforms. We published many pieces tackling these issues, including on the role of lobby groups like BusinessEurope and the European Roundtable of Industrialists in this neoliberal push. We campaigned (together with trade unions and other NGOs) against water privatisation being imposed on Greece, Portugal, and other countries under administration of the Troika. We contributed to the partial victory of the campaign against the EU's Concessions Directive, a directive intended to deepen liberalisation and privatisation of public services. In June 2012 the European Commission in a surprise U-turn announced that water would be excluded from the directive, a major victory for water campaigners across Europe.
The documentary “The Brussels Business – Who Runs the EU?” was launched in 2012, telling the story of corporate influence over EU treaties and policies from the 1980s onwards. It featured CEO’s Olivier Hoedeman and Erik Wesselius as well as industry lobbyists such as Keith Richardson (European Roundtable of Industrialists). The documentary was broadcast on TV channels all across Europe.
Jointly with TNI, we published a 73-page report 'Profiting from injustice' on how law firms and financiers fuel the investment arbitration boom, exposing the law firms and arbitrators who are making millions from corporate investment disputes against governments (ISDS). This was an important step in our campaign against the TTIP, the EU-US negotiations on a trade and investment agreement that would have given corporations massive new powers to challenge government policies to protect people and the environment. CEO played a key role in alerting to the threats emerging from the TTIP talks and building transatlantic civil society campaigns against the treaty.
We also published our in-depth report 'Conflicts on the Menu', documenting serious conflict of interest problems around industry-linked members of panels at the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA). In response the European Parliament refused to approve EFSA's budget and presented a list of demands to secure the body's independence from big business, including that EFSA should cut ties with corporate lobby group the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). ILSI was removed from EFSA's stakeholder forum. The Parliament also blocked an ex-Monsanto employee from joining EFSA's management board.
CEO exposed and denounced tobacco industry lobbying influence during the review of the EU’s tobacco products directive (TPD). In the aftermath of the resignation of Health Commissioner Dalli we challenged the reappointment of ex-Commission top official-turned-tobacco-lobbyist Michel Petite to the European Commission's ethics advisory panel. Petite had been lobbying former Commission colleagues for weaker tobacco rules. Following a CEO complaint, the European Ombudsman slammed the Commission for failing to implement UN rules to prevent tobacco industry influence.
We helped expose the lobbying scandal around Belgian MEP Louis Michel, who submitted no less than 150 amendments to weaken the EU's new data privacy legislation that turned out to be drafted by industry lobbyists. This scandal renewed debate over the influence of industry lobbyists in European Parliament decision-making, including the widespread habit of MEPs submitting amendments written by industry. We also revealed several problematic revolving door cases involving high-profile MEPs who left the Parliament to become lobbyists for Big Tech or the banking industry.
CEO played a mayor role in ALTER-EU's Politics for People campaign during the elections for the European Parliament. The PFP pledge mobilised NGOs in 15 countries and resulted in over 1400 candidate-MEPs signing the pledge to act against corporate capture, of which more than 180 were elected. Corporate capture became an election campaign issue in Germany, Denmark, Austria, Spain and other countries. This was helped by our in-depth report 'The fire power of the financial lobby', the first-ever attempt to quantify with hard facts the size and influence of the financial lobby on the EU level. In the run-up to the elections we also published 'The record of a captive Commission' summarising how the Barroso-2 Commission was deeply biased towards the interests of big business lobbies on virtually every policy issue.
We also exposed in detail several problematic candidate-Commissioners, including Jonathan Hill and Miguel Arias Cañete, both of whom had very serious conflicts of interest.
As a result of corporate lobbying becoming a significant political issue, new Commission President Juncker made a surprise promise to introduce stricter lobby transparency register rules. Later in 2014, the Juncker Commission introduced a number of new lobby transparency measures, including requiring lobbyists seeking meetings with Commission staff to be in the Transparency Register and pro-actively publishing lobby meetings with the top of the European Commission.
Building on our previous work on the threats from investor-to-state tribunals (ISDS) built into neoliberal trade and investment agreements, we increased the political pressure against the EU-US trade negotiations (TTIP). Our publications revealed how ISDS endangers environmental protection, how existing ISDS in investment treaties was used to demand billions of euros from crisis-hit countries, on industry's influence over the EU's TTIP agenda, on the implications of the talks for food and agriculture in Europe, the impacts on banking regulation, etc.
CEO published several impactful articles on the EU's re-evaluation of glyphosate (chemical used in Monsanto's weedkiller Round-up). Despite the World Health Organisation's conclusion that glyphosate is likely causing cancer to humans, EFSA did its own, clearly flawed assessment (based on undisclosed industry-sponsored studies) that claimed the chemical is safe. Over 140,000 people shared their outrage by signing our petition against this approval. Our report 'A Toxic Affair: How the chemical lobby blocked action on hormone disrupting chemicals' had very high-profile media coverage across many member states.
Jointly with ALTER-EU, our analysis of European Commissioners' lobby meetings found 80-90% of those of financial regulation Commissioner Jonathan Hill, digital sector Commissioner Oettinger, and climate Commissioner Cañete were with industry and only a tiny share were civil society groups or trade unions. The Commission as a whole had 75% of its meetings with corporate lobbyists. We wrote to President Juncker to point out this violation of his promise that the meetings of his Commissioners with lobbyists should be "balanced and representative".
The Dieselgate scandal revealed that Volkswagen and other car companies had cheated their pollution emissions tests on a massive scale, causing deadly air pollution far above what was legally permitted. CEO actively investigated and campaigned to reveal the size and political access enjoyed by the car industry lobby in Brussels and highlighted the fact that the car industry was given a very strong say in the EU's approach towards emission regulations, which enabled the massive cheating.
A key issue was the battle for strong rules to prevent corporate dominance of European Commission advisory groups. We published many piece showing why industry should not be allowed to dominate the hundreds of ‘expert groups’ advising the Commission about draft legislation. MEPs also put pressure on the Commission (several times freezing the Commission's expert group budget). One key victory involved the Commission closing down an industry-dominated expert group on environmentally destructive fracking following a complaint to the European Ombudsman. However, the European Commission's new rules for expert groups, while bringing some improvement, didn't go far enough to prevent big business from dominating the groups and steering policy.
This was also a crucial year for our campaign against the EU’s Trade Secrets directive which would have given corporations sweeping new rights to keep information secret, at the expense of workers' rights, freedom of the press, and whistleblower protection. We helped build a very broad coalition of NGOs and unions we achieved important damage limitation, even though, the final text was still a step backwards.
The year was also characterised by an unprecedented number of revolving door scandals. Several former Commissioners from the Barroso-2 Commission moved into controversial new industry (lobbying) roles. Former Commission President Barroso shockingly moved to Goldman Sachs, one of the world's most controversial corporations due to its role in the 2008 financial crisis. Former digital economy Commissioner Kroes joined Uber, and former trade commissioner De Gucht joined steel giant ArcelorMittal. CEO's critique of the Commission's inadequate revolving door rules was covered in mass media. The Commission has since proposed somewhat stricter revolving door rules, but it still avoids the strict rules needed to prevent corporate capture.
A complaint by CEO's sparked the European Ombudsman inquiry into the European Central Bank’s involvement in the ‘Group of 30’, a lobby group involving many of the world’s largest private banks and investment firms. The inquiry ended with the Ombudsman asking ECB President Draghi to end his membership of the group, to prevent secretive collusion between regulators and big banks. We also published the report 'Open doors for forces of finance' revealing how financial industry big-hitters use ECB advisory groups as lobby platforms.
We also critiqued progress on Juncker’s promise to securing “an appropriate balance and representativeness in the stakeholders" that Commissioners meet. Our analysis showed some commissioners had 80-90% of their stakeholder-meetings with corporate lobbyists. Other CEO research showed the heavy corporate bias in the meetings of the Commission department responsible for financial market regulation.
Our work on the lessons from the 2015 Dieselgate scandal highlighted the role of car industry lobbying influence in creating the weak regulatory system that made emissions cheating possible. The European Parliament approved a very critical report by the Parliament’s Dieselgate investigation committee (EMIS) which included important references to the excessive political influence of the car industry, and the transparency and accountability reforms needed to prevent a repetition of the scandal.
CEO was very active analysing and raising awareness around the Monsanto Papers, a major leak of corporate documents which contained shocking evidence of the company's manipulation of the science around its weedkiller glyphosate. We published extensively on the lobbying battle around the re-approval of glyphosate and submitted an official complaint on Monsanto’s non-compliance with EU lobby transparency rules. When the company refused to testify at a hearing about the Monsanto Papers, the European Parliament decided to temporarily ban the company from entering the premises.
We intensified our campaign to protect UN climate negotiations from the harmful lobbying influence of fossil fuel corporations (‘kicking polluters out of climate policy making’). In the run-up to the COP23 climate summit, the European Parliament asked the UNFCCC to introduce conflict of interest rules for UN climate talks to help curb fossil fuel lobbyists' role in climate policy-making. During COP23 this demand entered the official UN agenda, major breakthrough. Our flagship report 'The Great Gas Lock-in' showed the enormous lobby spending of the gas industry and its impact on EU policy-making, risking locking Europe into 40-50 more years of dependency on fossil fuels.
2017 was also the year in which CEO turned 20! We celebrated this with a study tour to Barcelona and a series of public debates, workshops and other activities in Austria, Croatia, Denmark, France, Portugal, France, Belgium, the UK and Spain. Most of the CEO team participated in a study trip to Barcelona in June, where we had meetings with municipalist activists and city councilers to learn about radical progressive policies and other initiatives to roll back corporate power on the municipal level.
Building on our research and campaigning to challenge neoliberal trade and investment agreements such as TTIP (EU-US) and CETA (EU-Canada), CEO launched a campaign against the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT), a little-known agreement increasingly popular among fossil fuel corporations using it to challenge – and get compensation for – government policies that they dislike (via investor-to-state dispute settlement, ISDS). Our analysis of the ECT was the first-ever in-depth, critical report showing how the treaty is a major obstacle to the desperately needed transition away from fossil fuels. We worked hard on political follow-up, campaigning and coalition-building. At the end of 2022 seven EU governments announced their withdrawal from the treaty.
Another major publication in 2018 was the 128-page report 'Corporate capture in Europe' launched in September with a high-profile and well-attended public debate in Brussels, with a CEO keynote speaker. The report presented evidence of corporate capture in various sectors at the EU- and member state-level and presents recommendations for reducing the risk of capture at EU and national level.
The European Parliament's plenary vote on the General Food Law was a major victory for our campaign against undue industry influence over EU food safety decisions, that started back in 2011 with our report 'Conflicts on the menu'. The vote was a big step to ending the secrecy around industry data used by the EU to grant market approvals.
We also exposed the efforts by corporate lobby groups to promote the so-called 'Innovation Principle' and their push to insert this into the EU’s new strategy for research funding. Their objective (including the pesticides industry) was to weaken the status of the precautionary principle in EU decision-making and thereby increase the opportunities for corporate lobbying victories. Joint campaigning with a broad range of NGOs resulted in hundreds of MEPs voting against the 'Innovation Principle'.
CEO co-hosted the high-profile 'Municipalise Europe!' conference in the European Parliament, together with Barcelona en Comu, the municipalist activist platform that is part of the city government in Barcelona. The event showcased a progressive municipal vision for the EU, featuring mayors, vice-mayors, city councilors, and activists from all around Europe. It was followed by a strategy meeting, which resulted in a joint campaign against the proposed Notification Procedure Directive, a reform of the EU’s Services Directive. The proposed directive would limit the democratic space of municipalities to introduce progressive regulations, for instance rules to protect affordable housing from the expansion of Airbnb. Our publications, coalition-building and advocacy contributed to the failure of the EU negotiations on this disastrously neoliberal Services Notification directive. The proposed directive was officially withdrawn in autumn 2020.
A major highlight was the successful launch of the groundbreaking Fossil Free Politics (FFP) campaign, with over 200 organisations from across Europe banding together to protect climate policy-making from fossil fuel industry influence. Our research (with FFP partners) showed the world’s five big oil and gas majors and their lobbyists have spent at least €251 million lobbying the EU since 2010, and resulted in over 150 media headlines. Our publications, workshops, and ‘toxic tours’ at the UN climate summit gave a lot of visibility and additional momentum to the campaign.
Our 'Captured States' report exposed how EU governments frequently channel industry lobbying demands into the EU sphere, and how lack of transparency and accountability in EU Council decision-making makes it easier for member states to side with corporate lobbies, illustrated with over 20 case studies. This secured strong media coverage and inspired a German TV documentary investigation into the corporate sponsorship of the rotating EU Presidencies. We also generated unprecedented interest in the problems around EU Council accountability among MEPs and civil society groups.
During the most recent European Parliament elections, our report 'Europe’s two-faced authoritarian right: ‘anti-elite’ parties serving big business interests' exposed the voting record of far-right populist parties and the often covert funding that these parties have received from corporations and ultra-rich individuals (debunking their cultivated image that they represent the interests of ordinary people).
In addition 577 candidate-MEPs (of which 78 were elected) signed the ChangeFinance pledge that we helped create, pledging to curb the lobbying influence of the financial industry. The elected MEPs set up a caucus that achieved important results after the elections.
Jointly with ALTER-EU, we asked the candidates for President of the European Commission what they would do to limit the risk of of excessive corporate power and ensure citizens voices have a place in EU politics. We published our analysis as a scorecard. Together with other NGOs we put pressure on EU heads of state to nominate commissioner-candidates free of conflict-of-interest and that would prioritize public interest. When candidate-Commissioners were being scrutinised in the European Parliament our investigations into conflicts of interest contributed to two Commissioner-candidates being rejected, and other candidates having to sell their shares and/or having to make additional ethics commitments.
CEO’s work was obviously heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our office was closed most of 2020, and all our activities moved online. We launched a Corona Lobby Watch logging cases of lobbies “opportunistically repackaging old demands, or developing new ones" using the pandemic to justify them, however speciously.
Our report 'Power and profit during a pandemic: why the pharmaceutical industry needs more scrutiny not less', kicked off a major research and campaigning effort on the EU’s COVID-19 vaccines strategy. The report showed that despite the EU's expressed commitment to making COVID-19 vaccines a 'global public good' during the pandemic, Big Pharma lobbying prevented this to defend monopoly patent control. We asked the Commission for access to the vaccine deal contracts negotiated with pharmaceutical companies (and for minutes and correspondence related to these talks). These FOI requests helped highlight the serious lack of transparency around these negotiations. This was the beginning of an almost two year long battle for transparency around the EU’s COVID19 vaccine strategy.
Our campaign towards the German EU presidency included open letters, an online petition and the in-depth report 'Tainted love', which we co-published with LobbyControl. This contributed to the German Government’s public avowal to not take any sponsorship for its EU Presidency, and to pro-actively publish the lobby meetings of their Permanent Representation office in Brussels. It is now established practice that member states’ Permanent Representations publish their lobby meetings in the 12 months before and during their presidency of the EU Council.
Our cooperation with MEPs in ChangeFinance delivered important results. When the European Banking Authority (EBA) allowed its Director Adam Farkas to move to a job as head of finance lobby group, the Association for Financial Markets in Europe (AFME), we published a series of articles and op-eds on this scandal and submitted a successful joint complaint to the European Ombudsman. The scandal deepened further when the EBA chose to nominate a new director who used to be a lobbyist for AFME. By rejecting this candidate, the Parliament took an unprecedented stance. Substantial improvements have since been made to the revolving door rules in the European Banking Authority (EBA), following the Ombudsman’s recommendations.
With the ChangeFinance coalition, we challenged the European Commission’s absurd decision to hand investment giant BlackRock a consultancy contract to provide it advice on sustainable finance (the integration of environmental, social and governance risks into EU banking rules). BlackRock has massive unsustainable investments itself as well as a track record of lobbying against strong ESG rules. A strong ruling by the European Ombudsman and pressure from MEPs forced the European Commission to change its rules around consultancy contracts to prevent such conflicts of interest.
We also published an in-depth study exposing new cases where EU officials were allowed to move from the EU’s civil service to corporate lobbying jobs, which showed that the European Commission still prefers to take a light touch approach to handling conflicts of interest, imposing conditions that are not monitored and others that are unenforceable.
Our 2020 climate and energy work included a report highlighting the fossil fuel lobby’s fingerprints on the European Green Deal, the Fossil Free Politics report 'Polluters profiting from pandemic bailouts' (about false climate solutions such as fossil gas and fossil hydrogen) being promoted in the EU’s corona crisis recovery funding, the in-depth report 'The hydrogen hype: Gas industry fairy tale or climate horror story?' and an exposé of the gas industry influence over MEPs acting as rapporteurs on energy infrastructure funding, as well as – in the run-up to the UN climate summit – a series of publications on the problems created by fossil fuel industry lobbying influence both in EU and UN decision-making.
CEO published the ‘Frontex Files’ investigation, which revealed the massive extent of lobbying targeting the EU’s borders agency and the agency’s inadequate enforcement of lobby transparency rules. In response the European Parliament voted for a motion deploring the agency’s lobby transparency record and demanded improvements. Our findings also helped convince the Parliament to postpone its approval of the Agency’s budget.
We published a series of impactful articles on the role of big industrial farming and pesticide industry lobbyists in the negotiations around the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the European Parliament’s Farm to Fork report (focused on reducing toxic pesticides use). We exposed manipulative corporate lobbying efforts to weaken the Farm to Fork report, via a number of narrowly framed and deceptive industry-funded ‘impact studies’. We also helped put the spotlights on a leaked internal strategy document of the industrial farming lobby. The call for binding pesticide reduction targets eventually did make it into the parliament’s report, despite the heavy industry lobbying against this.
Our work on transparency and accountability around the EU’s COVID-19 vaccines strategy gained major political and media attention and sparked an Ombudsman inquiry. This contributed to the Commission’s decision to publish the (redacted) contracts with vaccines producers. No less important were our investigations into the role of pharma lobbying around the EU’s decision to block the proposed temporary waiver on COVID-19 vaccine patents (a measure which 100+ governments support in order to help increase production and vaccinate the world’s poorest). Our report 'When the market becomes deadly' exposed how healthcare privatisation and under-funding of public health care systems weakened Europe’s pandemic preparedness.
Our report 'Targeting the European Commission: The 7 Lobbying Techniques of Big Tobacco' (jointly with EPHA and STOP) made important progress to push the European Commission to properly implement UN rules to protect decision-making from tobacco industry influence (Article 5.3 of the FCTC). In a well-attended debate on the report, a Commission representative announced the Commission wants to ensure that the UN rules are applied consistently across all Commission departments. Later in the year, the Commission’s tax department – following the example of DG Health – started publishing lists of its meetings with the tobacco industry (as well as minutes from those meetings).
CEO adapted its work program after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, for example to scrutinise the EU’s energy policy response, and challenge opportunistic corporate lobbying in the context of the war. As our agriculture campaigner Nina Holland said: “very cynically, the conflict in Ukraine is being instrumentalised by vested interests to ramp up the pressure to get crucial environmental and health commitments off the table”.
This trend has continued, for example undermining EU ambitions on a whole range of European Green Deal dossiers.
The EU’s energy policy response to the Ukraine war has been to double-down on gas from other repressive regimes. We exposed how the CEOs of six big energy companies – Shell, BP, Total, ENI, E.ON and Vattenfall, members of powerful lobby group ERT (European Roundtable of Industrialists) were involved in shaping the EU’s response, including an industry-only taskforce to advise the Commission on energy policy measures. Our initiatives on the cost of living crisis includes publications highlighting the central role of the fossil fuel industry (see for instance Fueling the cost of living crisis with Fossil Free Politics). With the Fossil Free Politics coalition we presented a petition to the European Parliament, signed by 91 climate and social justice groups from 15 countries demanding that fossil fuel corporations are held accountable for their role in the cost of living and climate crisis and to adopt a conflict of interest framework to remove them from climate and energy policymaking.
Our research (with Corporate Accountability and Global Witness) – showing that at least 636 fossil fuel lobbyists attended the UN climate summit, an increase of over 25 per cent from the previous year – gained major political attention and media coverage. Together with the Kick Polluters Out network we organised a day of action in which more than 450 civil society groups joined the call to Kick Big Polluters out at COP27.
We continued our series of publications on Big Tech lobbying, for example revealing Big Tech’s use of front groups and other problematic lobbying strategies regarding the Digital Services and the Digital Markets laws. We submitted a number of new complaints to the EU’s transparency register about these front groups; MEPs reacted forcefully against these deceptive industry lobbying tactics, calling for sanctions against the Big Tech corporations.
The Uber Files, a massive leak of the company’s internal documents, provided unique insights into the lobby strategies, privileged access, revolving door hires, and capture of policy-making in various countries by the controversial hail-riding app. These revelations also put Neelie Kroes, former Digital agenda Commissioner, back into the spotlight, given there was significant contact between Kroes and Uber, and we complained about the Commission’s lack of enforcement of its own revolving door rules. The leaked documents also showed internal Uber exchanges from 2015 which discuss "the risk that an NGO, such as the Corporate Europe Observatory" would investigate and expose its EU lobbying and wooing of a senior and high-profile Commissioner to join Uber. They were right to be scared.
Our report 'Inside job: How business lobbyists used the Commission's scrutiny procedures to weaken human rights and environmental legislation' uncovered how the original ambition of the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence (CSDD) proposal was torpedoed by corporate lobbying, particularly via the European Commission’s own Regulatory Scrutiny Board (RSB). Made up of un-elected officials, the RSB in effect is more of a 'de-regulatory board' whose mandate includes checking if new EU legislation will damage business ‘competitiveness’ or become too ‘burdensome’ for industry. Our investigation showed that while the RSB should not discuss individual legislative proposals in meetings with lobbyists, this did not prevent corporate lobbyists from deliberately targeting it as part of its campaign against the CSDD file. We also launched an animated video which explains – with the help of some bananas – how the EU's Regulatory Scrutiny Board helps corporations to derail social and environmental legislation.
In December we responded to the shocking Qatargate bribery and lobbying scandal, pointing out that CEO has for many years – with indepth investigations - warned against attempts by repressive regime to interfere in EU decision-making.
With our relaunched LobbyFacts website, which includes historical lobbying data going back more than a decade, we could highlight lobby firms that have declared working for the Qatar regime or connected groups in the past and show the continued inadequacy of the EU lobby transparency register to throw light on repressive regime lobbying.
We called upon MEPs to finally introduce the strong transparency and ethics system that can prevent such scandals.