European Commissioners who attended the last meeting of the secretive Bilderberg group have been accused of double standards for refusing to reveal any details of what was said during the seminars while charging the taxpayer more than €4,000 each to cover their expenses. Spanish Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia put in an expenses bill of €4,322 following the four-day meeting in the American state of Virginia – which brought together political leaders, the private sector and royalty in what has been dubbed a ‘shadow world government’.
Meanwhile, the expenses of Dutch European Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes totalled €4,167, while the expenses of Belgian Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht came to a mere €980 as he combined attendance at the May event with a separate trip to Washington. The figures were revealed by the commission itself in response to a parliamentary question by Philip Claeys, a Belgian MEP who wanted to know if the bureaucrats were attending as private individuals or as representatives of the European Union. According to the event’s official website “participants attend Bilderberg in a private and not an official capacity”, although according to commission president Jose Manuel Barroso the three were indeed representing the Brussels executive. Responding to Claey’s question, Barroso said that “the travel expenses incurred were paid by the commission, as for any mission”.
Claeys tells PublicServiceEurope.com that Barroso’s reply was “very strange”. He continues: “I think that is a lot of money. The commissioners say they were attending in their own capacity and were invited personally, but when it comes to paying their expenses – suddenly they are members of the European commission. It is not correct. When there are questions about what is going on, about who said what, they cannot say. They should at least pay their own expenses.”
The Bilderberg meetings, which are by invitation only, take place behind closed doors “to allow participants to speak their minds openly and freely”. The forum, which dates back to 1954, was established due to concerns that “western Europe and North America were not working together as closely as they should on common problems of critical importance”. Among this year’s attendees were: Keith Alexander, commander of the United States cyber command and director of the National Security Agency; Marcus Agius, chairman of Barclays; British politician Kenneth Clarke; Robert Dudley, group chief executive of oil and gas giant BP; Austria’s Federal Chancellor Werner Faymann; Pascal Lamy, director-general of the World Trade Organisation; and His Royal Highness Prince Philippe of Belgium.
Given that Bilderberg’s “hospitality costs” are “the responsibility” of the members of the group’s steering committee from the host country, the commissioners’ expenses are likely to refer in part to the cost of transatlantic flights. Asked if commissioners have the right to fly first class, spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen says “there are many situations applying”. Hansen’s colleague, Antonio Gravili, did not respond to a request for more detail. But commissioner De Gucht is more forthcoming. “Yes, we do have the right to fly first class,” he tells PublicServiceEurope.com, in a walking interview on the street outside the commission’s headquarters in Brussels. The class of travel depended on issues such as the length of the trip and whether or not it involved an overnight stay, De Gucht says.
Pierre Vimont, executive secretary-general of the European External Action Service – the EU’s diplomatic arm – also attended this year’s Bilderberg event, although there is no mention in Barroso’s reply of his expenses claim. “The meeting was not attended by any official of the European Commission”, Barroso stated. Commissioners might, however, have been accompanied by members of their cabinet – some of whom are not classed as officials according the nomenclature. When asked who else from Brussels went with him, De Gucht says he could not remember anyone other than his two fellow commissioners. He dismisses conspiracy theories surrounding the event, which he has attended more than once. “It’s no world government,” he insists.
It is quite possible that the Brussels contingent at this year’s Bilderberg summit was larger than the official figures suggest and the expenses claim higher. Given that we will never know what went on, it is perhaps justifiable to ask whether the taxpayer got real value for money. The more critical commentators would suggest not.