High-ranking Conservative urged colleagues to back controversial Chinese telecoms group
By SourceMaterial and Peter Geoghegan
- Nirj Deva MEP pushed colleagues to support Huawei in EU parliament vote
- Huawei stepping up EU lobbying as leak rocks UK cabinet
- Deva warned previously by EU committee over undeclared China trip
As a scandal over Huawei engulfs Theresa May’s cabinet, a senior Conservative politician with a controversial lobbying history has emerged as one of the Chinese telecommunications company’s leading advocates in Brussels.
On Wednesday the UK’s prime minister sacked her defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, after he was accused of leaking secret discussions about Huawei. The leak suggested May “overruled” senior ministers and security warnings to let the Chinese tech giant help build Britain’s new 5G mobile internet network.
Those concerns do not appear to have resonated with Nirj Deva, a Tory MEP and number two on the party’s list in South East England for the upcoming European Parliament elections, who recently urged colleagues to back Huawei in a vote in Brussels.
“I would ask you to make decisions based on facts, rather than unfounded allegations and to consider the very real implications of banning Chinese technology from our market,” Deva wrote to colleagues on 12 March in a leaked email seen by SourceMaterial and openDemocracy . “There has not been a single instance of foul play detected on any Huawei product.”
Huawei’s potential role in the 5G project threatens to chill transatlantic relations, with a senior US official warning earlier in the week that America will be forced to “reassess” its intelligence-sharing relationship if May does not change course.
The company has been accused of installing “back doors” in its technology which, according to Robert Strayer, deputy assistant secretary for cyber at the US state department, could allow the Chinese state to “undermine network security, to skim personal information, distribute cyber attacks and disrupt critical infrastructure”—claims Huawei denies.
Contacted by SourceMaterial and openDemocracy, Deva said he had “no relationship” with Huawei and had never met any of its representatives, adding that his concern was to give the company a “level playing field”.
“I believed banning people without evidence or enough evidence wasn’t our style in Britain – we believe in open markets,” he said. “China has been one of Europe’s most important economic partners.”
Hours after Deva’s email the European Parliament endorsed a resolution expressing “deep concern” about the possibility 5G technology developed by Chinese companies contained “embedded back doors”.
Deva founded and chairs the EU parliament’s China Friendship Group, not always without controversy. In 2014 he failed to declare a Chinese state-funded business class flight to Beijing and a six-night stay in a luxury hotel, adding the trip to his register of interests only after a warning from a cross-party advisory group.
Deva’s intervention comes as Huawei steps up its Brussels lobbying efforts, amid a growing backlash against its activities in Europe.
“Huawei people having been turning up in MEPs’ offices uninvited, handing out cards and invitations,” said a staffer for a UK MEP in Brussels. “It’s full on lobbying with no record of it.”
Huawei lobbyists include Dick Roche, an Irish former environment minister, whose company The Skill Set earned upwards of €100,000 from the company in 2016. Huawei employs nine full-time EU lobbyists who have held 41 meetings with senior European Commission officials since 2015, according to EU data.
A spokeswoman for Huawei denied that the company had been calling into MEPs’ offices uninvited and said that Huawei follows “all the procedures and guidance, the same as other companies”.
As well as speaking up for Huawei—it has “created 10,000 direct jobs and 30,000 indirect jobs in the EU in the past year”, according to the leaked email—Deva is a vocal defender of Chinese foreign policy.
“Recently it has become fashionable in Washington to cry wolf and ring alarm bells about China’s colonial ambitions,” he told the Chinese news agency Xinhua in January. “Frankly, I laugh at this.”
While there is no suggestion Deva has taken payment from Huawei or the Chinese state to lobby for the company, he has previously attracted criticism over his business activities.
As well as serving as an MEP, he is an unpaid adviser to the prime minister of Sri Lanka, where he was born and where he holds directorships at some of the country’s biggest companies, including an airline and a distillery.
In 2009, he used an expenses-paid trip to Barbados to lobby for a plastic bag company where he was a director. Deva and the company, Symphony Environmental Technologies, were in 2014 accused by a fellow MEP of exploiting their links to the British Conservative party to block a proposed EU ban on plastic bags.
Early in his career, during his unsuccessful campaign for a UK parliamentary seat in the 1987 general election, Deva was one of 23 MPs identified as recipients of cash payments from Ian Greer, a lobbyist at the centre of the “cash for questions” scandal. An inquiry later found that Deva had no case to answer.
More recently, Deva, who narrowly avoided a recent bomb attack while on a visit to Sri Lanka, has drawn attention as the president of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute. Run by his former research assistant, Benjamin Harnwell, it is working with Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, to establish a “gladiator school” for future far-right leaders in a monastery outside Rome.
Harnwell was “helpful” in arranging a meeting between Deva and Bannon at the White House in 2017 to discuss North Korea, though in the event it was conducted through “formal channels”, Deva told SourceMaterial.
A recent investigation by SourceMaterial linked Dignitatis Humanae to arch-conservatives in the Vatican working with Bannon against Pope Francis.
Picture: Doruk Bayram, Unsplash