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Broadcasting from the heart of the European Parliament, James Wilson looked directly at the camera before turning to his guests: a pair of lawmakers from the Odessa regional government in Ukraine.
It was the spring of 2018, and Wilson — accredited as a journalist with the Parliament — wrote up the interview for Brussels Express, a current affairs website, under the headline „Odessa to host Black Sea summit 5th to 6th September.“
But the discussion wasn’t just about journalism. A few months later, part of the same interview, complete with a photo and video of Wilson interviewing the two Ukrainian politicians, appeared as promotional material on a different website: that of Brussels ThinkLab, a consultancy providing communication, advocacy and crisis management services, mostly for Eastern European clients active in Brussels.
One of the consultancy’s founding partners? Wilson, a British expat with years of public affairs experience in the so-called Brussels bubble of policymakers, journalists and lobbyists.
None of this broke Belgian or European Union transparency rules about political lobbying. A spokesperson for the European Parliament said that because Wilson was an accredited journalist, he could freely use the EU-funded television studio whose backdrop — complete with lawmakers and their aides walking by — is one of the bloc’s most important institutions.
Yet the ability for an EU-accredited journalist to blur the lines between independent journalism and marketing for his political consultancy from the heart of the Parliament underscores how, despite longstanding efforts to make Brussels lobbying more transparent, large swathes of the bubble remain opaque and rules governing who has access to EU institutions are ill-defined, at best.
Wilson did not respond to questions about whether the Ukrainian politicians had been clients of his consultancy; if he was an accredited journalist with the European Parliament when he conducted the interview; and why content from that discussion later appeared on his consultancy’s website.
Wilson’s associates include Colin Stevens, the owner of a series of websites that have presented paid-for-content as independent journalism, including EU Reporter — the subject of a previous article by POLITICO. Another is Gary Cartwright, a former adviser to the United Kingdom Independence Party, owner of a separate news website, EU Today, and a regular contributor to the other two individuals’ digital media outlets.
Separately, the three British expats provide a portrait of the Brussels lobbying ecosystem where interlocking think tanks, trade groups, consultancies and purported independent journalistic enterprises promote narratives within the EU’s halls of power that benefit governments, companies and wealthy individuals.
The tactics don’t breach the EU’s voluntary lobbying rules, and there is no evidence that Wilson, Cartwright and Stevens worked together on specific lobbying campaigns.
But experts say the use of seemingly independent organizations — many championing the same political or commercial interests — makes it difficult for people to determine who is truly behind these complex influence operations. Other Brussels-based news outlets, including POLITICO, also offer outside groups the opportunity to promote themselves to EU policymakers, but clearly label such advertising so readers do not confuse it with independent journalism.
„It’s actually pretty clever, it’s ingenious,“ said Daniel Maki, an intelligence lead at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based group that tracks influence campaigns across the internet, who reviewed POLITICO’s findings.
„It’s duplicative of tactics used during the Cold War, where intelligence agencies would go and do exactly this: set up a publication or think tank or business council of some kind that would advocate for specific objectives that benefit a given client,” he added when asked about each individual’s use of such tactics.
In response, Stevens said that both Cartwright and Wilson had contributed as freelance reporters to EU Reporter, and that he had no business relationship, ownership or financial interest in the other individuals‘ publications. He also said he had contributed an unpaid article to Wilson’s think tank. „[I] consider them as competitors,“ Stevens added.
Cartwright and Wilson did not respond to questions about their relationship with either each other or Stevens.
At first glance, Wilson, Cartwright and Stevens appear to be just another set of British expats plying their trade from Brussels.
Stevens is a former British regional television executive, who took over EU Reporter more than a decade ago. He’s president of a local press club. He advises a Dutch think tank associated with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Wilson and Cartwright both worked as political consultants. Wilson for mostly Eastern European clients, Cartwright for UKIP until he fell out with the party’s leader Nigel Farage. Both embraced life in the Brussels bubble. Cartwright flung himself into the city’s jazz nightlife. Wilson started a think tank to promote better governance in the EU’s institutions.
But over the last decade, the men have worked on overlapping projects, writing for and contributing to each other’s organizations. Entities benefiting from that work include the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, Ukraine’s state-owned nuclear power company Energoatom, the Kazakh state-energy company KazMunayGas and a wealthy Polish businessman.
The connections between them are longstanding — and complex. They shed light on Brussels as an intermingling of interests and agendas, often with little transparency over how individuals are connected to each other.
For years, Cartwright has written for Stevens’ EU Reporter and EU Political Report, a Brussels-based news site owned by Wilson. Stevens also has published reports for Wilson’s separate think tank, the International Foundation for Better Governance — analysis that was subsequently picked up by EU Political Report. Wilson is a contributor to EU Reporter and EU Today, the news site owned by Cartwright.
Wilson and Cartwright have also moderated events at the Press Club Brussels Europe, where Stevens is president. Stevens told POLITICO his role at the venue — just a stone’s throw from the European Commission — was mostly honorary, included chairing the organization’s regular meetings and that he did not have any say on which groups held events there.
The practice of not disclosing ties between outside groups, independent media outlets and other Brussels-based organizations raises questions about EU voluntary transparency rules and how they are applied, according to Michiel van Hulten, director of Transparency International EU, a campaigning organization that seeks greater openness in lobbying activities.
„Brussels simply hasn’t kept up with the developments in lobbying and tends to be very focused on classic face-to-face lobbying meetings,“ he said. „It doesn’t really capture the whole web of organizations and websites that part of this ecosystem, which also form an important part of lobbying.“
Busiest man in Brussels
Cartwright, the former UKIP adviser, personifies how people in Brussels wear many hats.
A self-described East London “teddy boy“ — a reference to the British rock-and-roll subculture from the 1950’s — he’s written for Wilson’s EU Political Reporter, Stevens’ EU Reporter and his own EU Today. He has moderated events, including one criticizing allegedly fake non-profit organizations targeting EU institutions, at the Brussels press club where Stevens is president. Cartwright has managed public relations for events at the press club via Oveos, a consultancy where he has worked.
He’s given expert testimony at the European Parliament, in 2017 about potential human rights abuses in Kazakhstan, and in 2019, about the possible health risks of so-called mineral wool, an industrial material. Reports on that meeting ran in EU Reporter, EU Today and EU Political Report. Cartwright was also a media adviser to the Belarus EU Business Council, a now-defunct trade association whose director was Wilson.
Cartwright told POLITICO that he was not paid for his services at the trade group, though he was listed in the EU transparency register, a voluntary lobbying database, as the individual with legal responsibility over that group. He did not respond to questions about if he had disclosed his outside consultancy work as part of his journalistic career.
None of such activity broke Belgian law.
In early 2021, Cartwright set his sights on the Energy Charter Treaty, a decades-old international agreement, initially aimed at jumpstarting Western investment in the energy sectors of the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. Climate change campaigners and former employees have criticized the treaty for holding back the fight against global warming. Under the rules, companies can take governments to arbitration court if their local energy investments are threatened — for instance, by shifting away from fossil fuels to renewable sources.
Cartwright is no stranger to the treaty.
In 2015, he provided public relations services for its Brussels-based secretariat. Cartwright told POLITICO that he had worked for the organization, as a freelance media consultant, for three months. When his EU Today site was getting off the ground around the same time, one of Cartwright’s partners was the Brussels Energy Club, a local trade association. Its founder was Marat Terterov, who is now head of expansion at that secretariat. Cartwright’s EU-focused news site is still listed as a partner on the club’s website.
He told POLITICO that Terterov was a personal friend. „I have been pleased to support him in this initiative since day one,“ Cartwright added.
Last spring, when it came time for the Energy Charter Treaty to pick a new head for its secretariat, Cartwright’s EU Today waded into the fray. EU countries were pushing a reform-minded candidate, one that would likely spur investment in renewables away from fossil fuels. Yet Cartwright’s site backed the incumbent — a Slovakian whose position was supported by several Eastern European and Central Asian countries with extensive oil and gas interests.
In back-to-back articles — just as the selection process was coming down to the wire — EU Today disparaged a 2019 internal confidential report, obtained by POLITICO, that criticized the existing leadership and attacked the EU’s attempts to change the multilateral organization’s leadership. Both articles portrayed the current Energy Charter Treaty secretariat in a positive light.
At no point did the site disclose Cartwright’s association with the treaty or individuals connected to the organization. He did not respond to questions about why he did not disclose these associations.
While Cartwright juggles his various jobs, Wilson has created a lobbying playbook that he has used again and again.
The British expat spent almost two decades in the depths of the Hong Kong government, according to his LinkedIn profile, before diving headlong into the political world when he founded MacMillan, a lobbying consultancy, first in Ukraine and then subsequently in Brussels, in the mid-2000’s.
Over years, Wilson developed a go-to strategy to promote outside interests, relying on purportedly independent news sites, trade groups and political consultancies to make it appear that multiple entities were all pulling in the same direction.
Almost a decade ago, for example, he helped to defend Marek Kmetko, an allegedly wealthy man from Poland accused of money laundering and other crimes by the country’s authorities while he was living in Germany. Earlier this year, he was extradited from Switzerland to Poland where he’s on trial for fraud, according to local media reports.
In late 2013, a website — Kmetkostory.org — popped up that shared embedded advertising trackers with those of Wilson’s other websites, a likely sign they were created by the same individual, according to POLITICO’s review of the sites’ technical infrastructure. Kmetko still lists the website on his personal Facebook page. A press release on behalf of Kmetko also referred media inquiries to K.u.K, a company owned by the Polish millionaire, whose public relations contact, as of December 2013, was Wilson’s MacMillan consultancy.
The British expat also co-founded a United Kingdom-based entity, in 2014, called the Fundacja Kemtko, or Kmetko Foundation, a self-described pro-business organization that held its launch event at the Press Club Brussels Europe.
That year, four articles portraying Kmetko as an innocent victim of a Polish judicial system gone wrong also appeared on Stevens‘ EU Reporter. They were written either by a reporter who is currently the news editor at Wilson’s EU Political Report or by an unnamed “EU Reporter Special Correspondent.”
In another publication, the European Business Review, the same journalist quoted Wilson, under his title as the founder of the International Foundation for Better Governance think tank, as supportive of the Pole’s case. „He has suffered at the hands of politicians and other ‚black forces‘ in Poland including threats of imprisonment and actual imprisonment,“ Wilson said.
None of these articles mentioned Wilson’s separate connections to Kmetko. Wilson did not respond to questions about his association with the Polish citizen, his involvement in setting up the entities connected to Kmetko and why he did not disclose any of those ties.
More recently, as the EU grapples with issues like natural gas supplies and its response to climate change, Wilson has dived into the lucrative world of energy lobbying.
Between 2015 and 2016, his political consultancy, MacMillan Public Affairs, and a separate trade group he founded, secured two separate contracts — worth a combined €143,000 — from Energoatom, Ukraine’s state-owned nuclear power company, to organize public events and provide „strategic policy advice,“ according to the energy firm’s public statements.
Within months, Wilson began writing articles, mostly for Stevens’s EU Reporter, in which he painted Energoatom in a favorable light and defended the company against a possible takeover by a Russian oligarch.
He published one of the articles under his separate title as director of the EU-Ukraine Business Council, a Ukrainian industry lobbying group, that had received one of the Energoatom contracts. The group’s current director is Andrii Tiurin, head of Energoatom’s Brussels office, according to the EU’s transparency register. On the Council’s website, Wilson’s Skype username is still listed as the contact.
Via his separate think tank, Wilson also posted claims that Russia was undermining the company in ways directly harming EU interests. At no point did he disclose that his consultancy was on retainer with Energoatom or that he had other ties to the company.
Wilson, Tiurin and Energoatom did not respond to requests for comment.
In the summer of 2016, Wilson used a similar playbook after Romania, responding to allegations of corruption, froze a stake in the country’s largest oil refinery owned by Kazakhstan’s state-owned energy company, KazMunayGas. POLITICO could not verify if the company had paid him for his services.
After the energy company threatened to sue Bucharest via arbitration rules within the Energy Charter Treaty, Wilson created the EU-Romania Business Society, a trade association eager to promote international trade and, more important, protect foreign assets. It released harsh statements about Romania’s treatment of KazMunayGas.
Wilson was also quoted in other Brussels-based media outlets criticizing Bucharest’s dispute with the Kazakh state-owned oil company. He wrote about the legal wrangle — always from the Kazakh perspective — in EU Reporter, both under his own name and via the trade group.
Wilson did not respond to requests for comment on his association with KazMunayGas or why he had started the Romanian trade group.
For van Hulten, the director of Transparency International EU, the ability for individuals and groups to blur the line between journalism, lobbying and other activities are an indication of how much still needs to be done to make lobbying more transparent in Brussels. Unlike in the United States, where local laws require disclosure of ties to such outside groups, the 27-country bloc is still lagging behind.
“There’s this kind of the dark side, which is basically organizations that are trying to duck the rules altogether and are actively hiding what they’re doing on behalf of their clients,” he said. “People who attend these events or visit these websites should be able to make up their own mind about what’s going on.”
Karl Mathiesen contributed reporting from Brussels.
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