Monday

18th Jan 2021

Opinion

'Next Juncker' must fix EU's corporate power problem

  • How do Jean-Claude Juncker's potential successors plan to help ensure citizens' interests are prioritised over corporate interests? (Photo: Peter Teffer)

From Dieselgate to TTIP to the glyphosate saga, Jean-Claude Juncker's European Commission has failed to deliver one of its central promises: effective lobbying rules that protect policy-making from undue corporate influence.

Five years of his leadership, business still dominates much of the EU decision making landscape, shaping rules and regulations in their interest, one scandal chasing the next.

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While it's still uncertain who will get the commission top job next, the candidates must put the fight against excessive corporate influence at the top of their agenda.

Early glimmers of hope – Juncker urging his Commissioners to balance their meetings with stakeholders as well as attempts to get a mandatory lobby register off the ground – have sooner or later faded into obscurity.

What remains a win is Juncker's push to have all commissioners, their cabinets, and directors-general publish their lobby meetings: after a few glitches we now have some insight into the number and content of lobby meetings held by the commission.

But that's it.

Earlier this month, negotiations on a mandatory lobby register collapsed, and already a half-term review of Commissioner's lobby meeting records showed that corporate lobby groups have mostly dominated. Both of Juncker's core promises – the register reform and stakeholder balance - have been broken.

Who's fault?

When it comes to the failure to properly reform the EU Transparency Register, there is plenty of blame to go around: the council did not accept any binding commitments for itself and the parliament delayed the whole negotiation process immensely.

But ultimately, it was the commission that failed to properly lead the process and refused to accept the compromise proposal offered by the EU parliament earlier this year.

Worse yet, the very need to balance lobby meetings with corporate interest groups and public interest ones is apparently still not taken seriously.

To this day, many commission departments do not seem to understand that mostly meeting corporate lobbyists is a problem, let alone a risk to policy-making in the public interest.

Plus, mandatory publication of lobby meetings still only applies to the very top level of the commission.

Only very few commission directorates (DGs) have a system for internally recording lobby meetings with desk officers and other staff despite the fact that they play key roles in drafting regulation proposals.

Danger of corporate dominance

The corporate lobby firepower in Brussels is striking, with more than two thirds of the city's 25,000 lobbyists representing business.

Considering that European civil society is still in its infancy, that many people feel far removed from the EU institutions, and that public discourse remains mostly national in character, such corporate dominance is genuinely dangerous.

This sort of imbalance often leads to policies that are diametrically opposed to citizens' interests, feeding their frustrations with the EU institutions and playing into the hands of those advocating nationalist and authoritarian politics.

It doesn't have to be like this.

We are now getting closer and closer to the EU elections at the end of May, and many who hope to return to the European parliament – or to join for the first time - focus their campaigns on transparency and accountability in the face of rising far-right forces and nationalist regression.

If the Spitzenkandidaten system holds, the upcoming elections will also determine the new president of the European commission – assuming the council doesn't intervene in the nomination process at the last minute.

Whoever ends up with the top job must put the fight against excessive corporate influence over EU decision making at the top of their agenda, too.

These elections are the main democratic moment at the EU level for the next five years, and it is vital that citizens know their vote decides how the EU deals with excessive corporate power.

How do Juncker's potential successors plan to help ensure citizens' interests are prioritised over corporate interests?

Do they intend to enforce the guideline for commissioners to balance their stakeholder meetings? Will they finally deliver a mandatory lobby register?

To get clarity before voters head to the ballot boxes, the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) has written to all lead candidates, asking them to answer these questions and provide concrete suggestions for improving the status quo – we will publish the results in the beginning of May.

But really, this isn't a take-it-or-leave-it issue.

Unless the next commission president champions public-interest decision making, people will turn their backs on Brussels and the European Union for good.

The time for genuine lobby regulation and a stop to the risk of corporate capture of EU policy-making is now. It is a question of survival and must be a priority for the next head of the European Commission.

Author bio

Dr Max Bank is a researcher and campaigner at ALTER-EU member group LobbyControl, a German lobby watchdog organisation.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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