The Commission has approved Per Hellström's request to undertake a sabbatical from DG Competition with Apple. The Commission has told CEO that
“on his own initiative, Mr Hellström committed not to deal with any cases that he was formally involved in during his time at DG Competition, as well as to refrain during a period of one year after the start of his leave on personal grounds from any professional contacts with his former colleagues of DG Competition, and not to engage in any lobbying which could lead to the existence or possibility of a conflict with the legitimate interests of the Commission”.
Update 2 November 2015: The Commission has now told us that Hellström resigned from the Commission and that he has received authorisation to (continue his) work with Apple "under certain conditions aimed at preventing any potential conflict of interest".
From June 2012 to February 2014, Per Hellström was head of mergers for environment and energy at DG Competition. However, from September 2007 to May 2012, he was head of DG Competition's antitrust unit dealing with information industries, internet and consumer electronics, which presumably would cover much of Apple's interests.
According to an online CV for Hellström, his DG Competition antitrust unit was in charge of the investigation in the
“landmark antitrust decision in the Microsoft case of March 2004. Hellström was previously a member of the Legal Service of the European Commission, providing legal advice in the area of mergers and antitrust, as well as representing the Commission before the Community Courts in cases such as Microsoft and GE/Honeywell.”
Apple has significant interests in the work of DG Competition. In December 2012 there was a settlement between the Commission, Apple and four other publishers of ebooks who “offered a range of commitments to the commission.”
More recently, the Commission has been concerned about patent licensing, an area where Apple and other major IT companies are involved in legal cases around the world. In April 2014, the then EU Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia ruled, according to Reuters, that:
“Google Inc's Motorola … had been wrong to seek an injunction against Apple in Germany for copying a 'standard-essential' patent”.
Meanwhile, the European Commission is currently investigating Ireland's tax deals with companies including Apple subsidiaries which, if found to break state aid rules, would require substantial tax back-payments by Apple. Additionally, its deals with record labels and online music streaming services are also said to be under Commission scrutiny.
According to the EU Staff Regulations, since January 1 2014 Commission staff are not allowed to undertake sabbatical roles
“which involve lobbying or advocacy vis-à-vis his institution and which could lead to the existence or possibility of a conflict with the legitimate interests of the institution.”
This is an improvement on the previous rules, but significant loopholes remain in the EU's revolving door rules. Direct lobbying seems to be banned, but what about indirect lobbying, or the provision of strategic lobbying advice to colleagues about how best to approach DG Competition? Arguably this is not covered by the commission's restrictions. And while EU staff on sabbatical are subject to rules relating to professional secrecy and the release of non-public documents, the rules do not cover the sharing of more informal information such as insider know-how. The Commission has not sufficiently regulated the revolving door to prevent the risk of conflicts of interest arising from this and similar sabbatical roles.
Now, Hellström is an official lobbyist for Apple with a European Parliament access pass. In fact in Apple's declaration in the EU lobby transparency register he is listed as the “person in charge of EU relations”. In the year to September 2014, Apple had an EU lobby spend of €700,000 - €799,999. This contrasts to a spend of US$4,110,000 in the US on lobbying in 2014.
Apple lists several issues that it is currently lobbying the EU on including: “Digital Single Market proposal, the copyright reform, the circular economy package, TTIP”.
CEO contacted Per Hellström before publishing the original version of this article. Apple told us at the time that
“...we are not arranging any speaking engagements or interviews for Per currently.”
“It is a huge coup for Apple to poach a senior DG competition official such as Per Hellström and it seems outrageous that the Commission allowed this sabbatical to happen, and then authorised Hellström's role subsequent there. The restrictions on lobbying and on contacts with colleagues adopted by Hellström are inadequate and Apple could still benefit from Hellström's EU-insider status. We think that the Commission has been extremely naïve in not recognising the potential risk of conflicts of interest from arising in this case. Afterall, Hellström is responsible for government and regulatory affairs, competition law and policy in Europe at Apple, a job which surely is intimately linked to lobbying and advocacy work. The Commission should have prevented this sabbatical and it should take urgent action to prevent similar sabbaticals in the future.”