Blog | March 1, 2019

Four things to keep in mind ahead of the European elections in May

At the end of May, people across the EU’s 27 member states will go to the polls. They will cast their vote on who they want to lead Europe and what issues are top of their priorities, from tackling climate change to ensuring Europe’s borders are secure.

These elections couldn’t come at a more turbulent time. One of the EU’s biggest and most powerful member states, the UK, is on the brink of exiting; there are major issues of rule of law; and civic space in parts of the EU is closing down. Globally, we are facing an unprecedented climate crisis.

We want to send a clear message to those parties, candidates and countries preparing for the European Elections: tackling corruption and damage done to people and planet must be front of mind.

Threats from inside and outside the EU, not only threatens civic space and freedom of speech, but also the systems we have worked hard together to create. Systems that fight corruption, human rights abuse and environmental destruction.

Global Witness believes that it must be a core priority for both the new European Commission and Parliament to preserve and improve the regulations built over decades to protect people, their freedoms and the planet.

We want a better world – where corruption is challenged and accountability prevails, all can thrive within the planet’s boundaries, and governments act in the public interest. 

We ask that whatever the new representation of Europe looks like, those in power keep front of mind four key critical areas:

1. Leading a sustainable finance and corporate revolution

Too often, Global Witness exposes how European money – and EU-based investors – plays a key role in funding projects linked to human rights abuses, land grabs and large-scale environmental destruction.

With political momentum building to make banks and investors more accountable for today’s vast sustainability challenges – be it climate change or threats to local communities – the new European Commission and Parliament have the historic opportunity to build on the ongoing work as part of the EU’s Action Plan on financing sustainable growth - to act to close these loopholes.  

We’re committed to developing rules for EU investors to tackle the challenges of climate change, and bring about a more sustainable financial system. As well as helping implement the Paris Agreement, we want to ensure that rules for EU investors promote a more social and egalitarian Europe through mandatory investor due diligence and minimum social safeguards to ensure financial markets work for people and planet not just profit. 

EU regulation must prevent EU investors from financing companies and projects which contribute to climate change, deforestation, forest degradation or human rights violations - and must instead ensure EU investors serve people and planet better.

skyscraper black and white

EU companies must also do their part. Companies importing timber or minerals into the EU are required to carry out due diligence along their supply chains. We believe that all companies should do the same. This would ensure that companies are properly identifying, preventing and mitigating environmental, social and governance risks along their global supply chains. In a world where some multinational corporations are bigger than nations, it is time to ensure real checks and balances to protect people and planet. 

You can read our policy asks and findings on this in more detail here.

2. Creating real action on deforestation

From coffee drunk in French cafes to chocolate eaten in Belgium, Europe’s imports have a huge impact on our global environment.

Global Witness trip to PNG in 2016

Photo credit: Fábio Erdos/Panos

Foods such as these, eaten across the continent every day, can have devastating impacts on tropical forests millions of miles away, as centuries old forests are cleared to grow ingredients for foods that form a central part of our diet.

Between 1990 and 2008 alone, EU imports accounted for over one third of all globally traded commodities associated with deforestation. And each year, European consumption is responsible for deforested land nearly the size of Cyprus, or a quarter of the size of Belgium.

As it develops plans to step up action to tackle deforestation and forest degradation, the European Commission must propose binding legislation to guarantee that products placed on the EU market and activities in the financial sector do not cause deforestation, forest degradation or violations of human rights.

Read more on our call on this here.

3. Bringing an end to Money Laundering

Money laundering continues to present a huge challenge for the EU, as a string of major corruption scandals at EU banks - including one worth over €200 billion at Danske Bank in Estonia - have shown.

Despite successive changes to EU anti-money laundering rules in recent years, implementation and enforcement has been slow and patchy in EU countries. It is also becoming increasingly apparent that Europe’s defences against money laundering are only as strong as its weakest link, with national authorities often failing to detect and sufficiently punish money laundering when it occurs. As a result, huge volumes of dirty money – including from organised crime and corruption – are laundered through EU banks.

Money Laundering EU 2

The EU led the world when it required the real owners of EU companies to be revealed, and has recently taken unprecedented steps to pressure other countries to do the same via its money laundering blacklist. It also took important action to open up EU trusts albeit stopping short of making their owners fully public.

Working together, the new European Commission, Parliament and Member States must ensure that the ongoing reforms to the EU’s money laundering framework are ambitious and fit for purpose, including an accountability structure for banks with teeth. The Commission and Parliament must also put renewed pressure on the European governments who drag their feet in implementing existing anti-money laundering rules, including for company transparency.

Read more about the failings here and our EU anti-money laundering work here

4. Closing the door to the corrupt

Golden visa schemes, which offer passports or visas to the super-rich in return for large investments, pose a threat to the collective security and integrity of the European Union.  

Countries that sell visas and passports are making the EU a soft target for the wealthy corrupt. Weak vetting of applicants creates an open-door policy to criminals who are looking for a luxury lifestyle and a means to evade law enforcement and prosecution in their home country, while lax oversight of the schemes keeps the public in the dark and can expose officials to the risk of being bribed. 

This is not just what we believe, but what the European Commission concluded in January 2019 following a year-long study into the schemes available in Member States.

Golden visas

Currently, three EU Member States sell passports, and over 10 trade in visas.  Given the inherent corruption risks, these schemes ought to operate under the highest standards of due diligence and discretion so that countries know who they are welcoming in and where their money comes from.

Unfortunately, our joint investigation with Transparency International found that not to be the case. Instead, we discovered that a number of suspicious businessmen and oligarchs have bought golden visas and are enjoying all the benefits and rights that come with freedom of movement and European status.

Now that the Commission has finally recognised the serious risks associated with golden visas, we are calling for Member States and the Commission to take urgent action to radically reform schemes which threaten European citizens by selling ‘get out of jail free’ cards to the world’s corrupt elite.

Read more on our research and recommendations here.

The new European Parliament and Commission must be courageous – ensuring strong measures to curtail corruption and abuse are maintained and strengthened. It must acknowledge the links between finance and environmental destruction and start to reform them. And it must act quickly, as time grows shorter for a planet and continent under new and escalating pressures.


  • Rachel Owens

    Head of EU Office and EU Advocacy / Directrice du Bureau (UE). Campaign Lead on Corporate Accountability


  • Rachel Owens

    Head of EU Office and EU Advocacy / Directrice du Bureau (UE). Campaign Lead on Corporate Accountability

You might also like