Davignon 'Special Adviser' on African Development: Conflict of Interests?

Corporate Europe Observatory, 30 March 2007

The controversy around Etienne Davignon's role as a Special Adviser to EU Commissioner Louis Michel has continued throughout the month of March. On March 1st, the European Commission for the first time ever published a list of the names and mandates of special advisers to EU Commissioners, 55 in total. The list revealed that Mr. Davignon advises Development Commissioner Michel on "Africa policy, in particular the role of the private sector in the economic development of sub-Sahara Africa" and is also supposed to "mobilise the private sector for development policies". The risk of a conflict of interests is apparent: Davignon sits on the board of water and electricity giant Suez (which has clear commercial interests and expansion plans in sub-Sahara Africa); he moreover owns Suez shares worth more than 350,000 euro.

In response to concerns raised about Davignon's role, Commissioner Michel and his spokesperson instantly claimed there is "no conflict of interests". The statements on Davignon's role have however been inconsistent and far from exhaustive (see also "Chronology of the controversy about Davignon's conflict of interests"). Numerous questions remain unanswered.

A Commission spokesperson told a Belgian newspaper that Davignon's advice is "exclusively about European Affairs" and that "he does not advice about infrastructure works in Africa". Commissioner Michel the next day corrected this, stating that Davignon advises him about "involving the private sector in the development policy". At a meeting with development NGOs, Michel "claimed he was unaware of Davignon's connection to Suez and that he had never discussed water issues with him".[1] In an angry open letter, Davignon stated: "I do not act on Suez' behalf towards Michel."

Davignon is a heavyweight figure within Suez and has been the most prominent Belgian in the French-Belgian conglomerate since its creation through a merger in 1989.[2] Suez is very active in both the water and energy sectors in sub-Saharan Africa (see CEO fact sheet). The company has a clear interest in promoting the acceleration of privatisation in these sectors throughout the region. It has won construction contracts in Tanzania and elsewhere that are largely financed by EU development aid budgets. Very large amount of aid, moreover, will soon be become available for private sector firms as part of new EU-Africa infrastructure programs, with water and energy being priority areas (see CEO fact sheet).

Louis Michel has highlighted the rich experience of the 75-year old Davignon as an argument for appointing him as a special adviser. It could however be argued that there are aspects of Davignon's past activities, such as his role in the Belgian government's campaign against the Congolese liberation leader Lumumba (who was assasinated in 1961), that make him a rather inappropriate choice as adviser on African development (see also the Curriculum Vitae compiled by CEO).

A range of burning questions remain unanswered. On which policy areas has Mr. Davignon advised Commissioner Michel? Have EU development aid programs been influenced by Mr. Davignon's advice? Has Davignon's advice influenced the allocation of EU development aid funds? Has his advice on how to "mobilise the private sector" for African development directly or indirectly advanced the commercial interests of Suez? Has Davignon's privileged access to the Commissioner resulted in (future) advantages emerging for Suez, at the expense of competitors, including local African construction firms? While Mr. Davignon argues this is not the case, it would be important for the Commission to clarify this question. Has the Commission taken measures to prevent conflicts of interests, for instance by defining certain policy areas as off-limit for Davignon's advice?

It is high time for the European Commission to put the cards on the table and provide full clarity around the role of Mr. Davignon as a special adviser. According to the Belgian newspaper La Libre Belgique, this role is very far-reaching and includes 'auditioning' of the members of Louis Michel's cabinet.[3]

Meanwhile, the World Development Movement and five other NGOs and trade unions have written to Commissioner Michel encouraging him "to not renew Mr. Davignon's contract", which ends on March 31 2007.

To be continued...


  1. Michel’s need for flexibility on human rights, Eurostep Weekly, N° 458, 26 March 2007.
  2. The current company is the result of a merger between the French Suez and the Belgian Société Générale de Belgique. Suez: The endeavour to evolve from a French flagship utilities to a European corporation (1982-2006), Hubert Bonin, pages 7, 15, 16, 21.
  3. Dans les valises du commissaire Louis, Ces Belges qui font l'Europe (3/3), Martin Buxant, La Libre Belgique, 10 August 2006.