Thursday

21st Sep 2017

Opinion

Lobbying for a big business Brexit

  • Big finance and agribusiness interests have dominated the lobby meetings held in both London and Brussels. (Photo: James Broad, via Flickr)

In Brussels, the latest round of Brexit negotiations is about to come to a close.

The Brexit negotiators from the UK's Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) are facing the EU's Brexit Task Force. Their discussions are based on their respective position papers and red lines, drawn up beforehand - and subject to some heavy lobbying.

Brexit negotiators in London and Brussels have been meeting far more business lobby groups than civil society representatives.

But when corporate lobbyists provide most of the external input on negotiating positions for Brexit, and do so behind closed doors, there is a big risk that the public is getting almost entirely excluded.

Official statistics show that ministers at DExEU had six corporate lobby meetings for every one consultation with a civil society group. That is a lobby meeting pattern similar to the one at the UK's Department for International Trade, whose ministers are developing post-Brexit trade relationships with the rest of the world.

Business is booming

The situation in Brussels is no better. For every one NGO meeting held by the EU's Brexit Task Force under chief negotiator Michel Barnier, there have been ten meetings with business lobbyists.

Even combining all civil society meetings, including those with trade unions and think tanks, the Task Force has still been three times more likely to meet with business interests than with civil society.

And it is not difficult to guess which business sectors have been lobbying the hardest. Big finance and agribusiness interests have dominated the lobby meetings held in both London and Brussels.

Between October 2016 and March 2017, the majority of lobby meetings with DExEU ministers focused on financial policy and included get-togethers with powerful lobbies such as TheCityUK, which was present at eight meetings; HSBC, present at six meetings; and Goldman Sachs, whose representatives attended four meetings.

During the same time-span and across all issue areas, the UK's two biggest trade unions - Unison and Unite - each had no more than one meeting with DExEU ministers.

For EU negotiators, agricultural issues were at the top of the agenda for most lobby meetings, with many tete-a-tetes also concentrating on financial policy in the eight months between October 2016 and May 2017.

Across all topics, Barnier's team squeezed in just one meeting with a trade union for every fifteen meetings with corporate lobbies.

As a result, NGOs and trade unions have had much less facetime with negotiators and fewer chances to share their needs, concerns, and proposals on Brexit. Small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) have also largely been sidelined - crowded out by big business lobbies.

There is a distinct sense that in London and Brussels alike, political elites are intimately agreeing Brexit priorities with business elites.

Elite to elite

Donors to the UK's ruling Conservative Party as well as corporations with revolving door links to senior Conservative figures are listed among those holding lobby meetings at DExEU, including with the department's secretary of state, David Davis.

EU Brexit Task Force members have been most frequently lobbied by a British-founded think tank, the Centre for European Reform (CER), followed by business association BusinessEurope. Incidentally, previous Task Force head Jonathan Faull recently joined the advisory council at the CER.

Corporate bias aside, it is also the secrecy around the lobby meetings that is concerning. Attendees' names, information about the specifics discussed and the lobby asks presented - none are disclosed.

This means we do not know what David Davis discussed with lobby consultancy firms Pagefield and Bell Pottinger, and we have no idea which policies Michel Barnier talked about with the European Chemical Industry Council, one of the EU's biggest lobby groups.

Brexit is far more than a technocratic exercise to change a handful of UK laws. It will have a huge impact on the future of the UK in terms of jobs, trade, energy, agriculture, social and environmental policy - it will affect almost all aspects of everyday life for people living in the country.

For the EU, the UK's exit will mean major readjustment. But public consultation on any of these issues has been absent since the June 2016 referendum.

Right now, the corporate capture of lobby meetings has set us on a route towards a 'Big Business Brexit'. A slight increase of Brexit negotiators' meetings with NGOs and trade unions will not change that.

Decision-makers in both London and Brussels have to be more transparent about exactly who they are meeting and what is being discussed.

And they must comprehensively open up the debate to other voices to ensure that the post-Brexit future of both the UK and the remaining EU-27 countries is a socially just and environmentally sustainable one.

Vicky Cann is a transparency campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory, an NGO working to expose and challenge the corporate capture of EU policy-making.

This opinion piece was amended on 31 August 2017 upon request by Corporate Europe Observatory to correct an editorial oversight that occurred before the article was submitted to EUobserver. An earlier version of this article had characterised the Centre for European Reform as neoliberal.

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