MEPs hold ethically slippery side jobs — but they’re perfectly legal
It’s an open secret that numerous MEPs, especially qualified lawyers, are doing additional paid work on the side.
BRUSSELS — Axel Voss has a day job as a member of the European Parliament, where he helps write the rules for corporate behavior and how companies protect data. Yet the German politician also moonlights as a lawyer, doing paid work for a law firm and Deutsche Telekom.
It’s a common practice among European lawmakers that is raising questions about whether such side hustles are influencing decisions in Parliament, especially amid the eye-opening Qatargate corruption probe that has exposed the alleged bribing of MEPs by foreign governments.
The fact is that such supplementary gigs and salaries are legal thanks to the Parliament’s cursory ethics guidelines. And Voss, of the conservative European People’s Party (EPP), is far from the only MEP doing extra paid work — in law firms or consultancies — where companies are allowed to pay for the services of serving lawmakers.
Polish MEP Radosław Sikorski recently made headlines over his well-paid role as an adviser for a UAE-linked forum. But it’s an open secret in Parliament that numerous MEPs, especially qualified lawyers, are doing additional paid work. For instance, Angelika Niebler of the EPP is an adviser with American law firm Gibson Dunn, while party colleague Rainer Wieland runs his own law firm, even advertising generous office hours for clients to book appointments on the firm’s website.
Transparency campaigners, appalled at the European Parliament’s weak ethics rules, say it’s high time for them to be strengthened.
"Being a lawyer, like being a consultant or a lobbyist, is incompatible with being an MEP because it requires you to take instructions from, and work in the interests of, a client or employer,” said Vicky Cann from the NGO Corporate Europe Observatory.
Voss, 59, denies any conflicts of interest. The Brussels heavyweight, who is serving his third term as a European lawmaker, is shaping crucial laws on corporate due diligence and on artificial intelligence and was central to the passage of the EU’s data protection rulebook, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Voss has also worked since 2021 as a lawyer with Bietmann, a law firm, where he’s getting paid somewhere between €1,000 and €5,000 per month on top of his salary as an MEP, according to disclosures. The law firm’s website advertises him as a “lawyer” with his “main areas of activity” being data protection law, as well as copyright and media law. Those happen to be topics that Voss has worked very closely on as a European lawmaker.
Voss took a phone call on September 13, 2021, with a lobbyist from B-Connect, a public affairs consultancy where Rolf Bietmann — a former mayor of Cologne and founder of the Bietmann law firm — is a partner. Voss and the B-Connect lobbyist discussed the topic of due diligence during the meeting, his transparency record shows.
This finding, based on research provided by climate NGO ARIA, exposes just one example of how many parliamentarians are skating on ethical thin ice.
In the wake of the Qatargate scandal that has shaken the European Parliament, public pressure is building for MEPs to observe stricter ethical rules. Parliament President Roberta Metsola has responded by promising reforms to beef up transparency and integrity rules.
But MEPs working paid side gigs loosely related to their parliamentary roles is fair and square under Parliament’s current rules — even under the reforms being discussed. All lawmakers have to do is declare their extra jobs and meetings.
They’re not allowed to “engage in paid professional lobbying directly linked to the Union decisionmaking process,” the guidelines say — but that leaves a lot of leeway for other work that isn’t straight lobbying per se.
The two other German conservative MEPs, Niebler and Wieland, said their extra work was in line with the rules.
Niebler said she’s been practicing in the Munich office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher since 2015: "There are no conflict of interests as regards my parliamentary work and my ‘Of Counsel’ activity. I am primarily engaged with in-house activities ... such as female lawyers’ empowerment and diversity management," Niebler told POLITICO.
Wieland said he had "always followed all rules set by the European Parliament on my financial interests and will continue to do so."
’Broken ethical system’
Cann, at the Corporate Europe Observatory, said it was regrettable that these kinds of jobs are neither banned under the present code of conduct, nor under Metsola’s Qatargate reforms.
"That’s a huge missed opportunity. The EPP group has its head in the sand about the risk of conflicts of interest coming from its own members’ side jobs,” she said, adding that “there is a conflict of interest when a rapporteur such as Voss discusses the file with a consultancy with links to his own side job."
The Voss case “speaks to a broken ethical system,” added Nicholas Aiossa, from the nonprofit Transparency International.
Voss told POLITICO: “I work independently as a lawyer for the Bietmann law firm in an advisory capacity. I do not represent clients but assist in questions regarding European legislation, such as the implementation of the GDPR or the Copyright Directive. It does not relate to my current files.”
He added that the meeting with B-Connect wasn’t an in-person meeting in Berlin, as first recorded in his transparency register, but a phone call with Frank Freimuth from the public affairs company. It was about “the relationship between the German Supply Chain Act in 2021 and the following European Directive ... Thus, the discussion was on purely technical questions and none of B-Connect’s clients were represented, nor was anyone else involved,” Voss said.
Asked for comment, Rolf Bietmann confirmed in email correspondence that Voss worked for his law firm but had "nothing to do with" B-Connect, which shares the same office address.
Concerning the call on September 13, 2021 disclosed by Voss, Bietmann said that, although Freimuth is a minority shareholder in B-Connect, he did not participate as a representative of the company. B-Connect has yet to do any work on due diligence, Bietmann also said.
Voss is also a paid member of Deutsche Telekom’s data protection board, a role that blurs the line between his role as a lead lawmaker on data and digital files and this side job for Germany’s largest telecoms company.
The European lawmaker said: "The Data Privacy Advisory Board is an independent advisory body to the Board of Management of Deutsche Telekom AG. It serves as a forum for exchange with data privacy experts and advises on implementation questions of the GDPR. It thus does not constitute a conflict of interest."
A spokesperson for Deutsche Telekom wrote: "The Data Privacy Board is an Advisory Board. Its members are experts in their respective field and are completely independent ... Since the Data Privacy Board is not a law making body but an advisory board on compliance with existing laws there cannot arise any conflict of interests."
A spokesperson for European Parliament President Roberta Metsola refused to comment on Voss, as the questions regard an individual lawmaker. The EPP group did not reply to a request for comment.