July 27, 2017
by Guillaume Périgois

The incognito transparency activist

Corporate Europe Observatory on Forest EU and others, or the polite, curious ways and ironic pitfall of one transparency advocacy.


One month ago, I received an exemplary and polite email from a Lobbycracy Campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) asking questions about Forest EU:

from: Margarida <-redacted-@corporateeurope.org>

to: gp@forestonline.eu

date: 22 June 2017 at 16:38

subject: Questions about Forest EU

Dear Guillaume Périgois,

I work for an NGO called Corporate Europe Observatory which is a research and campaign group concerned with the access and influence enjoyed by corporations and their lobby groups in EU policy-making: http://corporateeurope.org/

I would like to ask you several questions about Forest EU. It would be very useful to understand more about this from your side before we consider publishing an article on this issue. I would appreciate receiving a response from you as soon as possible and before Thursday 29 June.

1. In the launch event for Forest EU, Simon Clark stated that the launch of a Brussels based chapter of the organisation was a consequence of Brexit and aimed at fighting the Tobacco Products Directive. Is this correct? What activities will that include?

2. Forest EU has recently joined the EU Transparency Register, yet Forest UK has in the past already managed EU level campaigns. Why did the organisation only register now?

3. Forest EU was named as a close partner of the also newly launched Consumer Choice Center. What type of cooperation exists between the two organisations?

4. Do you cooperate with other organisations, bodies or funders?

5. In your website you disclose that 100% of your budget originates from Japan Tobacco International. How do you plan to guarantee your independence, specifically in such cases where a conflict appears between the interests of consumers and those of the corporation funding you?

6. How do you respond to concerns that the independence of such an organisation is threatened by accepting corporate donations?

I look forward to hearing from you; thank you for your time.

Yours sincerely,

Margarida Silva

Following the Alanis Morissette pitfall of advocacy, CEO, which presents itself as fighting against lobbies and opacity happens to be an active group which declared more than €250,000 in lobbying efforts in 2016.

According to Politico, CEO is quite a controversial group too, with €1.7 million – a third of its total budget since 2007 – coming from unknown donors (except for Ayman Jallad, a Syrian-Lebanese businessman) through an organisation called Isvara Foundation, incorporated in Liechtenstein and managed from Zurich by some people at UBS.

You would think that the lack of information about Isvara Foundation would dissuade any organisation championing  integrity, transparency and accountability in EU policy-making from applying for a grant. But not CEO.

Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?

But wait, it gets more amusing.

Margarida’s reference to the Forest EU launch event on May 31st, 2017 intrigued me so I checked to see if she attended our great party (check our pictures here).

She indeed attended but omitted to fill in the name of the organisation she represented and used her personal email address and not her professional CEO one when registering.

I then remembered having a friendly chat with her at the party. It was nice, all smiles but too short since, after I properly introduced myself, she failed to disclose for whom she was working for.

Quite frankly, Forest EU gladly and openly accepts everyone at its events, and if guests prefer to attend incognito, that’s their choice and we respect it.

What’s curious is that someone from a group concerned about the lack of transparency in Brussels would attend a public event incognito.

Anyway, I am always happy to answer anyone’s questions about Forest EU and the importance of our activities:

from: Guillaume Périgois <gp@forestonline.eu>

to: Margarida <-redacted-@corporateeurope.org>

date: 29 June 2017 at 16:53

subject: Re: Questions about Forest EU

Hi Margarida,

Thanks for your email. Hope you enjoyed our Forest EU launch event on May 31st – I remember our nice chat there.

Please find my answers below.

1. In the launch event for Forest EU, Simon Clark stated that the launch of a Brussels based chapter of the organisation was a consequence of Brexit and aimed at fighting the Tobacco Products Directive. Is this correct? What activities will that include?

The launch of Forest EU in 2017 is an extension of Forest long-term goal to represent the millions of consumers throughout Europe who enjoy smoking tobacco and don’t want to quit. The idea of establishing a European organisation existed long before the idea of a Brexit referendum emerged. That’s because we intend to give consumers and citizens throughout Europe information and resources so they can engage with politicians and regulators at national and international level. Establishing Forest EU is a natural way to achieve this goal. Regarding TPD, the directive is already implemented so Forest EU is calling for a neutral review of the impact of the Directive, as you can see on our website. But that’s not the only issue we intend to cover. We are also concerned about smoking bans and plain packaging for exemple.

2. Forest EU has recently joined the EU Transparency Register, yet Forest UK has in the past already managed EU level campaigns. Why did the organisation only register now?

Forest EU registered to the EUTR on March 24, 2017 before the launch of its website and activities on March 27, 2017. If you have questions about Forest in the UK, I can give you their email address.

3. Forest EU was named as a close partner of the also newly launched Consumer Choice Center. What type of cooperation exists between the two organisations?

Forest EU doesn’t work jointly with the Consumer Choice Center or any other organisation. It has an independent organizational structure, its own purpose and a principled-message championing consumer choice established since the launch of Forest in 1979. We’re happy that other organisations share some of our views.

4. Do you cooperate with other organisations, bodies or funders?

Forest EU doesn’t work together with any other organisation. We don’t rule out future cooperation with other organisations on specific projects, on a ad hoc basis and only if it is necessary to better promote the Forest EU message. More importantly, Forest EU is open to meet, discuss with and publicize its activities to all interested institutions and organisations. We regret that our openness is not shared by others.

5. In your website you disclose that 100% of your budget originates from Japan Tobacco International. How do you plan to guarantee your independence, specifically in such cases where a conflict appears between the interests of consumers and those of the corporation funding you?

Forest EU doesn’t take orders from any other organisation. The views expressed by Forest EU are those of Forest EU alone. Since its founding, Forest has shown that its principled-message is not for sale and like Forest, Forest EU will criticise the actions of corporations, institutions and organisations if they are in conflict with the interests of adults who choose to consume tobacco and don’t want to quit.

6. How do you respond to concerns that the independence of such an organisation is threatened by accepting corporate donations?

Forest EU accepts donations on its own terms. We are happy to receive funding to continue to advocate our message that European informed adults have the right to consume a legal product without excessive taxation and regulation.

Please come to our next ‘Why do smokers smoke?’ event on July 11th. And let’s have a coffee soon, too.

Best wishes,

Guillaume

Following this exchange, CEO published a post about Forest EU and other organisations on July 20th.

The title is pure clickbait and the post is a long exercise in the “follow the money” fallacy.

For many, the only conceivable reason someone dares to disagree with something is because he or she is being paid. For them, there are only two types of people: truth-tellers and paid shills.

I find this worldview bizarre.

This isn’t how organisations do their fundraising. Organisations have a mission, work hard to complete it and search for donors that have expressed interest for this mission. Organisations simply avoid donors who want to alter their mission — it’s disruptive and too much of a hassle.

Put simply: bucks don’t buy brains.

Our core principle is that informed adults have the right to consume a legal product without excessive taxation and regulation. We’re very happy to receive funding to continue to advocate this message.

We will also continue to welcome everyone to our events — incognito or not.

And Margarida, let’s have a proper introduction in person; my coffee invitation still stands.

Your view: I think bucks don’t buy brains, but do you think money makes minds? Is it OK to disregard a message if one doesn’t like the messenger? To what length should funding transparency go? Let me know on Twitter or at gp@forestonline.eu

Featured image: “Incognito” by Erik bij de Vaate is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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About Forest EU

Since 1979, Forest has been the leading voice in defending the rights of tobacco consumers and tolerant non-smokers. As an advocacy campaign, Forest EU informs consumers about issues that affect them in the European Union and engages with stakeholders so the views of informed adults are taken into account within the EU’s decision-making process. Forest EU doesn’t encourage smoking, accepts there are serious health risks associated with smoking tobacco and represents the consumer, not the tobacco industry. For more information, visit http://forestonline.eu/.

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