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Lobbying is (not) corruption

Why did a former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State hide the actual content of his lobbying conversation with Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner? According to research by abgeordnetenwatch.de, there are doubts as to whether the lobbying rules for former members of the government will be complied with in all cases. Sanctions for violations do not exist, but instead the Federal Government hopes for “own responsibility” and “legally-loyal behaviour” of the ex-politicians: And on the control function of the media.

Because the Minister of Agriculture was in need of time, she ordered the lobbyist to an unusual place at short notice: the Berlin radio station of Deutschlandradio. Between an interview and her onward journey to the airport, Julia Klöckner (CDU) listened to what the representative had to say.

Klöckner’s meeting of 7 August 2019 is a prime example of the Federal Government’s often indifferent approach to lobbying. On whose behalf or in what function the stakeholder spoke to Klöckner, it is allegedly no longer known in her house today. Presumably the minister did not ask at all. For the lobbyist for whom she had scooped herself up for a few minutes was a long-time party friend and good acquaintance: Ole Schröder, a CDU member of the Bundestag for thirteen years and a parliamentary state secretary in the Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI) for nine years. In 2018, Schroeder turned his back on federal politics to work as a management consultant and lawyer.

In fact, it was a much more explosive topic.

It is a grey area between politics and lobbying. Time and again, ministers: interior and parliamentary under-secretary of state: the sides change and from now on work on or on behalf of corporations and lobby groups. For the economy, former members of the government are valuable door openers. You know who to turn to – at best you know the minister personally.

Schroeder later told the SPIEGEL that he had spoken with Klöckner about “questions of agricultural policy”. But this is only half the truth, as internal documents from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture (BMEL) show.

According to the interview documents that the ministry had to issue at the request of abgeordnetenwatch.de, agricultural policy was only a partial aspect. At its core, the meeting between Schroeder and Klöckner was about a much more explosive topic: the allocation of radio waves that become free. A preparatory paper for Klöckner is titled “Your conversation with Dr. Ole Schröder on the allocation of 450 Mhz frequencies on August 7, 2019”.

Why did Schroeder hide the delicate lobbying topic?

Around the attractive 450 megahertz frequencies have been going on behind the scenes for a long time. Police and other state security forces want to use it, but also the energy industry, which is pushing ahead with the expansion of smart grids. For this reason, the energy lobby has been on the move in the ministries for months, especially the former Parliamentary State Secretary Katherina Reiche (CDU), who now works as managing director for the E.on subsidiary innogy Westenergie GmbH. The lobbyist met several times with ministers: the secretary of state and the secretary of state.

Schroeder, too, went to the Federal Government to clean the door when it came to radio waves. On 6 May 2019, he had a telephone appointment with his party friend Peter Tauber, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Defence. He even sent an argument paper to the BMEL for his conversation with Klöckner. The letter emphasises the importance of the 450 megahertz frequencies for the energy transition.

Why did Schroeder hide for a long time that he had exchanged views with Klöckner about the delicate lobbying topic? And on whose behalf or in what function was he on the road?

12-month blocking period

For Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State: Interior and Federal Ministers: there are clear guidelines after their departure if they want to take up a new job (“career arrangements”). When Schroeder quit his post at the BMI in March 2018 to work as a management consultant and lawyer, the Federal Government allowed him to do so only subject to conditions. For twelve months, he was not allowed to work in any area closely related to his previous work in the BMI. Digital issues could be such a critical area: Schroeder, as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, had a lot to do with information technologies, and on his website he still states that he has coordinated the area. However, the discussion with Klöckner took place after the end of the twelve-month blocking period and was in accordance with the rules in this respect.

For Schroeder, however, there was another requirement: within eighteen months of leaving office, he had to inform the Federal Government if one of his mandates as a lawyer or business consultant could lead to “a deterioration of the public’s confidence in the integrity of the Federal Government”. When Schroeder exchanged views with Klöckner on the 450 megahertz frequencies on 7 August 2019, the notification deadline was still in place – according to the Federal Government, no notification was received in the following months.

“Was there a client? He left this question unanswered

Ole Schroeder strongly denies that the conditions have been violated. “I have fully complied with the guidelines of the grace period body,” he said when asked by abgeordnetenwatch.de. His reporting obligation applied only to “special situations”, for example, if a mandate was a subsequent reward for decisions taken in office. Schroeder left open why he claimed for a long time that he had spoken to the minister about agricultural issues, even though it was essentially a digital issue. The long-time CDU member also did not want to answer the question of whether he was third on behalf of Klöckner.

A possible answer to this question could be hidden in the documents of the Ministry of Agriculture. The “argumentation paper” that Schroeder sent to Klöckner’s experts reads as if it came from one of the operators of the coveted radio frequencies: the company 450connect GmbH.

The Cologne-based group is part of the largest electricity and gas grid operator in the Netherlands, Alliander N.V. , and cooperates with municipal energy companies such as EWE and RheinEnergie. Schroeder’s paper bears a striking resemblance to the website of 450connect in many places, some passages are even identical. Both times, it says, that digitalization offers “enormous opportunities to fundamentally improve people’s quality of life while reducing the negative environmental impact of economic and social coexistence.” 450connect GmbH did not respond to two requests for comment on possible business relations with Ole Schröder.

The Federal Government does not feel responsible for the case of Ole Schröder and his ominous lobbying meeting with the Minister of Agriculture. It is Schroeder himself responsible for “assessing the relevance of his work under the term of service and reacting accordingly,” she wrote in a recent response to a parliamentary question from the Left Group. “The Federal Government expects to be notified of post-official employment,” he said. It is not known whether Schroeder met with Klöckner on behalf of third parties.

Disinterested and ignorant

In another case of the grace period, too, the Federal Government is ignorant and disinterested: that of the long-serving SPD minister and vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel. With their ‘Little Inquiry’, the Left faction wanted to find out why, after leaving as Foreign Minister in March 2018, he had not indicated an alleged job as an adviser to the Federal Government.

The Left faction relies on information on the Website of Deutsche Bank, for which Gabriel works as a supervisory board member. It reads that the former Foreign and Economic Affairs Minister is active “since 2018” as a “partner, independent advisor” at the company ‘Speech Design SGL GbR’.

The Federal Government does not provide clear answers to Gabriel. It is true that it points out that the ex-minister had indicated activities as an honorary speaker and publicist. However, the government leaves open the question of whether Gabriel should have communicated his supposed advisory activities and whether this happened.

Government hopes for “right-to-do behaviour” from former cabinet members

Jan Korte , leader of the Left faction, accuses the government of being blue-eyed. “The federal government openly admits that it does not directly control the grace period and that there is no need for such investigations,” Korte told abgeordnetenwatch.de “Instead, it blindly trusts the former members of the government.” The left-wing politician is calling for an extension of the grace period. A transparent statement of reasons for each case, which, among other things, resulted from previous official contacts with the new employer, was needed. This is what is done at EU level for outgoing Commissioners.

However, the Federal Government rejects a tightening of the grace period rules in its reply to the Left Group, despite the recent criticism of the lax regulations in Germany by the Council of Europe. The existing rules, the government said, had proved their worth in practice. In principle, “the personal responsibility of former members of the government for legally-loyal conduct is assumed even after leaving office.”

And if not?

There are no sanctions, the Federal Government admits in its response to the left. A review by the media and the public would lead to “violations of the grace period arrangements becoming public.”

Reprimand for lax grace period rules in Germany

The Council of Europe has again reprimanded Germany for lax anti-lobbying rules. In the Evaluation Report adopted on 29 October 2020 and published on 15 December 2020, entitled “FIFTH EVALUATION ROUND Corruption Prevention and Integrity Promotion in Central Governments (high-level executive decision-makers and law enforcement authorities), a panel of experts calls, inter alia, for an extension of grace periods and the introduction of sanctions for breaches.