College of Europe and Saudi ties: a scary backlash for progressive European policies

On the 12th of February the news of a Saudi private meeting with EU officials, and MEPs overshadowed the revolutionary political step achieved by the EU Commission in Strasbourg the very next day. The European institution approved and updated its new list of 23 third-countries with strategic deficiencies in their anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing frameworks. A political strategy targeted to protect the EU financial system by better preventing money laundering and terrorist financing risks. The 28 EU states now have one month, which can be extended to two, to endorse the list. They could reject it by qualified majority. However, the prestigious EU-funded post-graduate institute apparently has decided to contradict such innovative turn of events.

The news leaked from an institutional email addressed to a MEP, as referred by EUobserver, in which it states that they [the authorities] “are organising a visit to the European institutions for seven Saudi ambassadors and seven high-level officials from the Saudi government”. Thus, clearly contradicting the EU common policy on the matter. The visit is set for the 18 to 22 February and will include some College of Europe graduates who now work for the EU institutions.

This behaviour has registered a double degree of responsibility. As a matter of fact, the EU lobby transparency rules clearly state that academic institutions should register if they “deal with EU activities and policies and are in touch with the EU institutions” and the College of Europe, is not listed in the EU joint-transparency register. Nevertheless, exceptions may be applied if such visits take place only for purely academic purposes, but still, there is no mention of “academic purposes” on the leaked mail. The proposed meeting is referred as a formal discussion on “current issues in the relations between the EU and the Saudi government”. The accountability of the gathering is currently questioned by Scottish Green MEP Alyn Smith, who on Wednesday 13, openly asked Jorg Monar, the rector of The College of Europe, the relevance of the issue.

The resonance of the meeting ultimately deteriorates the already weakened Saudi trustworthiness. As a matter of fact, the private event come less than four months after the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the non-sufficient governmental collaboration for the official investigations. In addition to that, the infiltrating Saudi lobbying policy has indeed incremented during the latest reports on MSL Brussels. A Global Public Relations and Integrated Communications Partner which has represented the Saudi Foreign Office and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, via the Saudi Mission to the EU, helping them to convey the country’s key lobbying positions to MEPs, the press, and EU institutions.

The Saudi intentions verge to distract the public attention on the humanitarian situation in Yemen and the conduct of the conflict.  An extreme humanitarian situation for which the Yemenite civil society has suffered many collateral losses due to poor living conditions, following the attacks of the Saudi-led coalition. The statistics on the sufferings have been displayed and addressed by a recent parliamentary question by MEP João Pimenta Lopes.

In response to the allegations, Jesus Ballesteros, the director of the Bruge-based College of Europe, told EUobserver that the visit is part of the institute’s mission to support good relations between the EU and its international partners. As declared by Mr. Ballesteros: “Whether we like it or not, Saudi Arabia is a main international partner of the EU as well as Russia, as well as China, as well as the United States, as well as many others [..]”. However, the director later added that the meetings are part of a wider dialogue to discuss topics that will also cover human rights.

The European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) welcomes the adoption by the European Commission on the updated anti-money laundering list of third countries and the public question addressed by the Scottish Green MEP Alyn Smith. We are sad to hear that the College of Europe has agreed to set up a private meeting with one of the major responsible of HR violations. The story has deeply saddened the operative work of our group and the one of other NGOs, especially since it has, once again, shown how the role of human rights is downgraded by high politics principles.

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