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Senior Tory revealed as Huawei cheerleader in Brussels

As leaks scandal rocks Theresa May’s government, emails show high-ranking Conservative urged colleagues to back the controversial Chinese telecoms firm.

Peter Geoghegan
Leigh Baldwin Peter Geoghegan
2 May 2019
Zhang Ming (left), head of the Chinese mission to the European Union, and Nirj Deva, chairman of the EU-China Friendship Group in the European Parliament.
Nirj Deva (right), chairman of the EU-China Friendship Group in the European Parliament, and Zhang Ming, head of the Chinese mission to the European Union.
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Ye Pingfan/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images
  • Nirj Deva MEP urged colleagues to support Huawei in EU parliament vote
  • Huawei stepping up EU lobbying as leak sacking divides cabinet
  • Deva warned previously by EU committee over undeclared China trip
  • Conservative MEP also linked to Steve Bannon Italy-based “gladiator school”, and met Bannon in White House

As the ongoing controversy 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 prime minister sacked her defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, after he was accused of leaking secret discussions about Huawei that 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 for the upcoming European Parliament elections, who recently urged colleagues to back Huawei in an upcoming 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 openDemocracy and SourceMaterial. “There has not been a single instance of foul play detected on any Huawei product.”

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".

Huawei’s potential role in the UK’s 5G network threatens to chill trans-Atlantic 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 that 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."

Brexit-supporting 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.

Other declarations show five further trips to China paid for by Beijing – in 2014, 2015, 2016, and two in 2018 – including subsistence payments, business class flights and five-star hotel accomodation.

“Huawei people having been turning up in MEPs’ offices uninvited, handing out cards and invitations.”

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, 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 he had no case to answer.

More recently, Deva, who narrowly escaped 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.

Deva was invited to a meeting at the White House in 2017 during Bannon’s time there, according to a person with knowledge of the matter who asked not to be identified. Among the topics the pair discussed was North Korea. Deva has said that the EU should play a greater role in “de-escalating tensions” in the Korean peninsula.

While Harnwell was helpful in arranging the meeting, it was conducted through “formal channels,” he said.

Deva recently announced that he would stand for a fifth term in the European parliament if the UK holds elections on May 23. “Rather than “cut and run” in the face of political adversity, like a coward, I intend to stand my ground,” the South East England MEP wrote in a letter to constituents.

“A collapse in the Conservative vote at the Euro election would propel Jeremy Corbyn into office. Our party might never recover. We would have opened the door to a Marxist-Leninist Labour Party that would ruin Britain like a locust swarm.”

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