Brexit: Atos Boss EU Commission nominee gets green light on finances

Atos Thierry Breton confirmed as France’s European commissioner

The European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee today approved the financial declaration of Atos boss Thierry Breton, France’s nominee for the European Commission.

Atos Boss controversially gets green light on EU commission position after he pledged to stay away from decisions directly involving his former company Atos and to avoid conflicts of interest.

Thierry Breton was until 4 days ago CEO of the Atos? Atos are linked to thousands of deaths in the UK. About 1,600 working-age disabled people are dying every year after having their claim for disability benefits rejected, the government has been forced to admit.

In the United Kingdom, from 1998 – 2015 Atos Healthcare was at the centre of a controversy over the management of contracts by their healthcare division of the Work Capability Assessment for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). In August 2015, statistics from the Department of Work and Pensions revealed that 2,380 people had died between 2011 – 2014 soon after being found fit for work through disability benefit assessments. In 2014, “the DWP negotiated an early exit from the existing WCA contract with the private firm, Atos, after raising concerns about the quality of its work”.

However, Atos still (as of October 2016) undertakes work for the DWP in assessing Personal Independence Payment applications. The Press Association revealed in 2017 that Atos, used by the DWP to make its decisions, are set to be paid more than £700m for their five-year contracts against an original estimate of £512m.

When Atos took over administering PIP’s estimates of how fast claims could be processed were over-optimistic as were estimates of how easily claimants could get to assessment centres. This led to delays in assessments, distress to claimants and unexpectedly high costs. Atos was accused of misleading the government.

Atos developed a computer system that would extract data from GP’s computers nationwide. Costs rose from £14 million to £40 million and it was felt Atos had taken insufficient care how it spent taxpayers’ money. LINK

Atos lost the contract for fitness to work tests, Richard Hawkes of Scope said, “I doubt there’s a single disabled person who’ll be sorry to hear that Atos will no longer be running the fit-for-work tests.” Hawkes claimed the “fundamentally flawed” test should be “more than an exercise in getting people off benefits. It should make sure disabled people get the specialist, tailored and flexible support they need to find and keep a job.”

The Department for Work and Pensions figures (DWP) reveal that 7,990 disabled people who lodged a claim for person independence payment (PIP) in the five years after the new benefit was launched in April 2013 had died within six months of registering their claim, while also having that claim rejected.

These figures mean that more than 130 working-age disabled people a month have been found ineligible for PIP following an initial assessment by government contractors Atos and Capita but were still so unwell that they died soon afterwards*.

Disabled People Against Cuts researcher Anita Bellows, who has previously carried out widely-praised work examining the PIP contracts awarded to Atos and Capita, said:

“Once again, the spotlight is on disability assessment contractors, Atos and Capita, and on the DWP, after the release of figures showing the number of claimants dying after their PIP were disallowed.”

She said the figures should be viewed in the light of around 70 per cent of claimants appealing a PIP decision having the initial decision overturned by a tribunal.

She said: “So it can be said with certitude that some of these people who died were denied the support they were entitled to, or they might have died because of this lack of support.

“DWP, Atos and Capita have shown time and time again that they are not fit for purpose, and neither are the tests supposed to assess disability and fitness for work, which have lost all credibility.

A conflict of interest Atos received 67 million euros since 2014 from the Horizon2020 research fund alone

Thierry Breton and his company Atos other than its controversial role in pip assessments as many fingers in many pies and what would seem to be clear conflicts of interest have been completely ignored by the EU.

The committee gave Breton, who is slated to take on a beefed-up internal market portfolio, as been given the green light despite concerns from some members about potential conflicts of interest linked to his business background, including in the digital sector.

This approval, will  be the first time that a CEO was chosen to join the College of Commissioners, a move more reminiscent of the Trump administration than the EU civil service. There is a striking and massive overlap between the interests of the company Breton headed and the remit of the Internal Market portfolio Macron has negotiated for him, including industrial policy, defence, tech and space. This overlap creates a maze of potential conflicts of interest that would be very difficult to solve.

Atos, an active and successful EU player

Breton led the work of of Atos from 2008 up to the end of October 2019, one week after being nominated to become Internal Market Commissioner. The company is a multinational actor which specialises in information technology services, and operates in a wide field of sectors – from cybersecurity, consulting, telecommunications and financial services to healthcare, but also aerospace and defence electronics.

The company has a keen interest in EU politics given the EU’s role as market regulator, but the EU institutions are also a substantial source of funding for Atos. In 2018 alone, the multinational received nearly 107 million euros in funding from the EU Commission and its agencies Sidenote. These contracts cover, for example, projects on 5G networks, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, big data, high performance computing and financial security.

Media coverage of Atos and Breton often concentrates on the company’s work on innovative tech products, such as high performance computing. Its role in the security and border management apparatus is less discussed. Atos received 67 million euros since 2014 from the Horizon2020 research fund alone. The two key areas funded are big tech projects (ie 5G and big data) and security, including cybersecurity and border controls.

Atos has also been one of the main recipients of EU funding from the European Union Agency for the Operational Management of Large-Scale IT Systems in the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice (EU-LISA), to build what have been called “virtual walls”. These are IT systems that control, monitor and survey people at the EU’s external borders. According to the Transnational Institute, these programmes use “stringent controls following generalised threat assessments based on biometrics and features, not in the least skin colour”. Moreover such border control systems can also be seen as trial runs for a possible later deployment in the general population.

An internet monitoring system dubbed ‘Eagle’, which was developed by Atos’ subsidary, Bull, is even now the focus of an investigation by the Paris Prosecutor’s office. The system was sold to various repressive regimes including the Khadaffi regime in Libya, Ben Ali’s Tunisia and the Moroccan secret service, allowing them to monitor citizens and journalists. Breton was a board member of Bull.

Breton’s approval by the European Parliament means he now become responsible for steering EU policy in these areas. The mission letter assigned to Commissioner-designate Breton would put him in charge of investing in technologies like “blockchain, high-performance computing, algorithms, and data-sharing and data-usage tools”; “defining standards for 5G networks”; coordinating an “European approach on artificial intelligence and on the new Digital Services Act”; and, finally, building a real single market for cybersecurity”.

Making a career in the private sector via public office?

This is not be Breton’s first spin through the revolving door between private and public, between regulated and regulator. He had already previously been plucked from France Telecom (now Orange) in 2005 to become France’s Finance Minister. He stayed in this role for two years. Directly after leaving he took a job at the Rothschild Bank as a senior advisor and within one year he was appointed CEO of Atos.

Breton is a typical member of the French economic and political elites: 35% of the CEOs of companies listed in the Paris Stock Exchange (CAC40) come from the two top universities, which typically train most of the country’s senior politicians and high officials (the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, where Macron studied, and – the Polytechnique, from which Breton graduated), and the Board members of publicly listed French companies have the highest rate of simultaneous mandates in boardrooms among European countries.

Breton’s move to Atos was controversial, with the French anti-corruption organisation, Anticor, filing a complaint in 2015 and again in September 2019 accusing the National Agency for Automated Processing of Offences (ANTAI) of showing favouritism towards Atos in public procurement deals. Anticor mentioned Breton’s revolving door as a possible explanation for the alleged favouritism.

Heading up Atos and its subsidiaries (Bull and Worldline) is not the only role that Breton held when he was nominated as Commissioner either. Thus far it is known that he was until this month a member of boards at Carrefour, Bank of America and Sonatel (a Senegal-based telecommunications company).

But Breton in particular could still face a rough ride. On Tuesday, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the Greens and the far-left GUE group unsuccessfully requested that he answer additional written questions on how he would recuse himself from Atos from a regulatory standpoint.

“I think there are many questions about his conflicts of interest,” tweeted Tiemo Wölken, coordinator for the S&D group in the Legal Affairs Committee. He said he regretted the committee’s decision to give Breton the green light at this stage.

Breton is set to have a broad portfolio spanning industry, digital, defence and space. The size of the portfolio was an issue raised by MEPs when they rejected Sylvie Goulard, French President Emmanuel Macron’s original pick for the post.

Breton gives his word not to take advantage!

Thierry Breton pledged to stay away from decisions directly involving his former company Atos and to avoid conflicts of interest in his financial declaration filed to the European Parliament.

“In agreement with [President Ursula von der Leyen], he will automatically recuse himself of every decision of financial administration, of contractual nature or assimilated that would directly involve Atos or one of its subsidiaries,” the document reads.

The 10-page document details Breton’s previous managerial and board positions and investments in his long career in the private sector, including as CEO of tech company Atos, from which he stepped down on October 31.

It confirms the nominee sold all of his shares in the company.

“Mr. Breton will apply with an extreme rigour the code of conduct of members of the European Commission … [to] avoid any situation that could result in a conflict of interest, or could be perceived as such,” the document also reads.

Following his nomination, several MEPs raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest linked to Breton’s business background, including in the digital sector, for which he will now be a top EU regulator.

In late October, France’s Junior Digital Minister Cédric O shot down conflicts of interests concerns but said Breton “cannot deal with areas involving Atos” as EU commissioner.

According to Breton’s declaration, he has quit at least four different jobs as of October 24. Breton was a member of multiple company boards across several industries, including finance, agri-business and tech.

He was a board member of retail giant Carrefour from 2008, a member of Bank of America’s “global advisory council” from 2013 and a board member of Bank of America Securities Europe’s French subsidiary from January this year. Breton was also a board member of Senegalese telecom company Sonatel from 2015 to October this year, according to his declaration.

The commissioner has also left his non-remunerated position at France’s National Association for Research and Technology (ANRT), an organisation gathering public bodies, private actors and academics on research and innovation.

Manon Aubry, the co-leader of the far-left GUE party and a member of the European Parliament’s legal affairs committee, questioned Breton’s pledge to stay away from any decisions which involve Atos in a statement, arguing that “if Breton withdraws from any file that presents a conflict of interest with Athos, it means we will nominate a part-time commissioner.”

Aubry said her group would question Breton next week about the sale of his shares and its mechanics.

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