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9th Aug 2020

Coronavirus

Lockdown: EU officials lobbied via WhatsApp and Skype

  • EU commissioner Maroš Šefčovič in video-meeting on 30 March (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Some lobbyists are "burning the phones" to EU officials in Brussels, as industry reacts to the pandemic shutdown.

Activity is less intense than in national capitals, where the big bailout money is up for grabs.

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  • EU records of virtual lobbyist meetings appeared patchy (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

But EU institutions are also rewriting laws and policies on the hoof as the crisis develops, creating opportunities for industry to make its mark and prompting NGO concern on public scrutiny.

For Alber & Geiger, a German law firm in Brussels, the situation was "identical" to that in Washington, where lobbyists were "burning the phones" in a "gold rush" for US bailout funds, according to a recent report in the New York Times.

"The EU and member states are coming up with new rescue ideas every day," Andreas Geiger, the company's managing partner, told EUobserver.

"It seems unlikely there'll be enough bailout money for all those who might feel eligible, so it shouldn't be surprising if there's a rush to make a company or an industry's case," Jill Craig, the managing director of Hume Brophy, an Irish lobbying firm in Brussels, said.

EU institutions had been "actively seeking stakeholder input" and mailing out consultations on "inception impact assessments" in recent weeks, Mónica Vicente Cristina, the managing director in Brussels of Weber Shandwick, a US lobbying firm, said.

"We see a lot of lobbying happening. There's no doubt there's a flurry," Margarida Silva, from Corporate Europe Observatory, a pro-transparency NGO in Brussels, also said.

For others, the EU capital was quieter compared to national ones, which will pay out the rescue funds.

The EU has, so far, agreed €37bn in aid from its joint budget, but member states were to decide which companies benefit. And national-level bailouts will probably add up to trillions of euros, dwarfing EU-level spending.

"Brussels isn't like Washington, because 90 percent of public money in Europe for helping business ... will be distributed in national capitals," Sören Haar, a partner at Eacon Group, a Brussels-based lobby firm, said.

"The general public should be more concerned about people 'burning the phones' in their national or regional capitals," he added.

"This is where huge amounts are being put together ... [and] it's being done in a big rush," he said.

But bailouts aside, EU institutions are also rewriting the laws that govern the single market in reaction to the crisis.

The EU is relaxing rules on state aid and fiscal discipline, for instance.

It is also taking a second look at policies on medical standards, bank stress tests, 5G data networks, and CO2 emissions, among others.

The seven lobbying firms that spoke to EUobserver represented some of the biggest players in the transport, fossil fuel, pharmaceutical, and tech industries.

EU decisions could make multi-billion euro impacts on their clients, which included household names such as Bayer, Chevron, General Electric, Royal Dutch Shell, and Uber.

And all that was just a fraction of the €1.8bn a year EU lobbying sector, which employed some 48,000 people in Brussels and which represented fairly all the world's top corporations.

Lockdown apps

Meanwhile, the talk of lit-up phones and laptops came amid novel working methods in the Brussels lockdown.

"Clearly, physical meetings, for the moment, are very rare if at all existent," European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer told EUobserver on Tuesday (31 March).

The situation has seen lobbyists turn to apps like Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, TeamWork, WhatsApp, and Zoom to speak to EU officials, they said.

"Nothing beats [real] face-to-face contact," Tom Parker, the chief executive of Cambre, a Brussels-based lobby firm, said.

And others felt "awkward" trying to break the ice by phone with people they had never met before.

But "it really helps to see who we're talking with, so we're encouraging everyone to turn on their video," Weber Chandwick's Vicente Cristina said.

The new way of working had its advantages, some noted.

"Everyone suddenly has time to read and respond to our requests immediately," Alber & Geiger's Geiger said.

And the crisis has created new social events, with some staff at Weber Shandwick, for one, doing "virtual apèros" at the end of their working day.

For the PR firms, the general public had nothing to fear from video-lobbying in the lockdown.

"We see no evidence of ... clients looking to take advantage of operating in the shadows," Cambre's Parker said.

It was important for EU institutions and industry to tackle the pandemic hand-in-hand, several lobbyists noted.

"This crisis is first and foremost about health and wellbeing, jobs and livelihoods," Gurpreet Brar, the general manager in Brussels of Edelman, a US lobbying firm, said.

"It's absolutely right that impacted industries ask for support during these difficult times," he said.

Acumen, another Brussels-based lobby firm, said it was helping to fight the virus.

The PR company was handling "enquiries from various sources to help SMEs [small businesses] ... get funding to develop vaccines, diagnostics, and repurpose drugs to combat Covid-19, often on a pro bono basis," Acumen partner Elaine Cruikshanks said.

Public scrutiny

But others were doing less salubrious work.

Tobacco firms, for instance, have spent the past three months fighting EU anti-smoking rules, such as those on plain packaging, via a Brussels front group called Forest EU, according to the group's newsletter.

Smoking has made the pandemic worse because smokers were more at risk from respiratory complications.

But Forest EU, which is funded by British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco International, among others, was now preparing to attack an EU ban on menthol cigarettes, its director, Guillaume Périgois, told this website.

"Our aim ... is to remind journalists that there are at least two sides to every issue, including smoking," Périgois said.

Smoking apart, leaked position papers seen by the Corporate Europe Observatory NGO indicated that industry was also trying to delay new medical standards, loosen CO2 emissions ones, and speed up construction of controversial 5G networks during the pandemic.

And for civil society, all that meant the public deserved proper scrutiny of lockdown lobbying.

"Extra efforts on transparency are crucial in these times," the NGO's Silva said.

With video-lobbying blurring the line between casual phone calls and formal meetings, EU staff needed "guidance" on how to behave, she added.

"Lobbyists representing the fossil fuel value chain are ready to take advantage of this situation to push for financial support and tax breaks or for diluting or delaying climate regulation", Danny Magill, from InfluenceMap, another pro-transparency NGO in Brussels, also warned.

"Without appropriate public scrutiny, there's a significant risk vested interests will use this crisis to further their own agenda," Magill said.

In normal times, the EU commission logged lobbyists' meetings with senior officials in publicly-accessible online calendars.

It was still doing the same, its spokesman said on Tuesday.

"Obviously, we're continuing with our transparency measures as before. Video-meetings of commissioners are published in their calendar and there's a register of these meetings," Mamer said.

But its documentation of industry video-meetings appeared patchy at a glance on Thursday.

Some officials' calendars did have notes in brackets saying "telephone conference" or the like.

But others, such as EU commissioners Valdis Dombrovksis and Maroš Šefčovič, for instance, had either had no video-meetings with lobbyists since the lockdown began in early March or none that had been noted down yet.

"In our experience, 'no', the public should not be concerned," Craig, from the Hume Brophy lobbying firm, told EUobserver.

"However, if there's a need for reassurance, perhaps the [EU] institutions could introduce a mandatory call log?", Craig suggested.

And in the meantime, the use of electronic apps to do lobbying meant every single conversation "should be discoverable later on" if need be, Cambre's Parker said.

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