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7th Aug 2020

Feature

How corporate lobbyists steer EU law-making

  • Attempts to make the EU lobby register mandatory and applicable to all three main EU institutions have repeatedly been stalled by inter-institutional conflicts (Photo: Daniel Huizinga)

Lobbyists have operated in Brussels for almost as long as the European institutions settled down there.

In 1965, several Dutch newspapers reported with a sense of amazement how "pressure groups" had descended in the unofficial European capital to influence officials working for the European Economic Community (EEC) - the then seven years-old predecessor to the European Union.

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  • Peter Teffer, former EUobserver investigative reporter, and author of the book (Photo: Geert Snoeijer)

The journalists highlighted the smorgasbord of corporate interests represented by such groups: the faucet industry, the dry-cleaning sector, manufacturers of sewing machines and sparkling beverages producers.

They also reported that corporate interests and agriculture lobby groups had easier access to EEC officials than labour unions and consumer organisations.

In the 55 years that have passed since those newspaper reports, not much has changed.

Yes, the EU has transformed, growing from six member states to 28 (and now shrinking to 27) and affecting a much greater part of daily life than it did in those early days of the EEC.

But it is still the case that corporate interests have a disproportionate influence on EU lawmaking.

I saw this during my five years (2014-2019) as a staff writer and investigative journalist for EUobserver, and it is the subject of my latest book, published in the Netherlands and Belgium this week.

One explanation is that the interests of corporate lobbyists often align with the possible political majorities in the complex EU.

For an EU directive or regulation to become law, lawmakers need to find multiple sets of compromises: between conservatives and progressives; between North and South; between East and West; between big and small member states.

The EU's internal market has proven to be the go-to foundation that allows for those compromises.

Because what is the one thing that all EU governments agree on? The importance of economic growth. Jobs. Capitalism.

So, member states are able to agree on an internal market where trade barriers are removed for carmakers, giving them the ability to get their required certifications anywhere in the EU.

But there is less consensus on how to protect the environment and human health, and to give up sovereignty in those fields.

So, member states for many years were unable to agree on pan-European oversight to prevent carmakers from cheating on emission tests.

Even the 2019 EU directive banning the use of plastic in certain single-use products lists "contributing to the efficient functioning of the internal market" as one of its main objectives.

One civil servant to write law

Because EU institutions have relatively few staff, it is no surprise that companies are in a position to provide - and pre-select - information which becomes the starting point from which to legislate.

The European Commission relies on outside information in part out of necessity. Its staff amounts to some 32,000, including translators and interpreters.

The municipal governments of the four largest cities in the Netherlands combined (responsible for some 2.5 million citizens) employ more civil servants than the EU commission (responsible for rules affecting almost 450 million citizens).

An EU source with extensive experience, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said legislation was often written by "one or two people".

"It is actually a very small team that works on these issues. A head of unit can be very lucky if he maintains his staff for several years and is able to work with good people, ideally scientists, engineers, who draft the necessary legislation," the source said.

This situation has seemingly become worse, after EU institutions cut back on staff since 2014.

The European Court of Auditors concluded last year in a report that "less favourable conditions of employment have reduced the attractiveness of working for the EU at a time when it is struggling to attract sufficient staff from a number of member states".

Complexity scares off citizens

If the EU is having difficulty attracting enough staff with such detailed knowledge, you can imagine how difficult it is for ordinary citizens to influence lawmaking from the outside.

"The complexity of EU law is an obstacle for civil society to take its fair share in the discussion," acknowledged Eric Ducoulombier, a high-ranking civil servant in the European commission, a few years back.

He spoke at a conference in 2016 organised by Finance Watch, an NGO which calls itself a "counter-power to the lobby of finance".

But the NGO is hardly in a fair fight: Finance Watch has less than €2m to spend on lobbying in Brussels, while the combined banking lobby has sixty times that: €120m according to another NGO, Corporate Europe Observatory.

Finance Watch depends on public funding: more than half of it comes from the EU budget. This has created the schizophrenic situation in which the European commission is funding an NGO to lobby the commission to remember to take into account the effects on ordinary citizens when drafting financial regulations.

But numerous examples I reported on for EUobserver showed that the commission and other EU institutions and agencies are in constant need of such reminders.

The European Defence Agency held its annual meeting in 2018 without inviting anyone from civil society, stressed it was important to "get the buy-in of citizens", and then in 2019 again declined peace activists who wanted to attend.

Expert groups often consist of a majority of members that have an economic interest in the sector they give the European commission legislative advice on.

Romania, while holding the six-month rotating EU presidency, outsourced the organisation of a debate on energy to the nuclear lobby - which subsequently forgot to invite any critics of nuclear energy.

European commissioners continue to meet mostly with lobbyists representing corporate interests. According to the Integrity Watch website, 70 percent of the meetings Juncker's commissioners had with non-politicians were with corporate lobbyists.

But at least European commissioners report who they meet.

More transparency: a moonshot?

While the EU is sometimes perceived as an opaque machine, on some levels it is more transparent than national politics.

The EU has a register of lobby organisations, where lobbyists have to register if they want to meet high-ranking commission civil servants or commissioners. The database includes information on who has access badges to the European Parliament and the budget a lobby group has available.

The register has its limitations: the information in the register is self-declared and there are no sanctions for submitting false data.

Yet attempts to make the EU lobby register mandatory and applicable to all three main EU institutions, have repeatedly been stalled by interinstitutional conflicts.

It is now three-and-a-half years since the commission proposed a mandatory transparency register.

Frans Timmermans, the responsible commissioner at the time, said the institutions needed "to work together to win back the trust of our citizens".

"Citizens have the right to know who tries to influence EU law-making," he said. But negotiations between the three EU institutions failed last year, just before the May elections for the European Parliament. There have been no new talks since then.

Last November, the Berlin-based NGO Transparency International held an event in Brussels, titled Towards a Breakthrough for Lobbying Transparency?

Finland's European Affairs minister at the time, Tytti Tuppurainen, representing the council, said the commission needed to take the initiative. It was just a few weeks before Ursula von der Leyen succeeded Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the commission.

'Everything depends on when the new commission starts its mandate,' said Tuppurainen.

'It shouldn't be too difficult. Man has been on the Moon so I think we can also reach this,' she added.

EU commissioner Vera Jourova, who took over the file from Timmermans, said that she would quickly restart talks in her first week under von der Leyen, in December.

But in January, a commission spokeswoman said "the next steps would be for the European parliament to appoint its negotiators and confirm its negotiation mandate".

Leaders of political groups in the EU parliament - the so-called Conference of Presidents - discussed who should be parliament's new negotiators only last week, 10 months after the election.

There were eight years between president John F. Kennedy's announcement to put a human on the Moon, and the landing of Apollo 11.

The EU has already spent almost half that time period discussing increased lobby transparency, but so far with few results to show for it.

Author bio

Peter Teffer is an investigative journalist who was part of the EUobserver reporting team from 2014 to 2019. His book Het lijkt Washington wel: Hoe lobbyisten Brussel in hun greep hebben [It looks like Washington here. How lobbyists dominate Brussels] is available in Dutch from 12 March.

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