Global Policy Forum

EU: Corporate Lobbying Grows


By Stefania Bianchi

Inter Press Service
December 12, 2004

There is an urgent need to regulate the "murky world of corporate lobbying" in Brussels, say campaigners and social non-governmental organisations. The groups say corporate lobby groups, which include industrial associations, political consultants and cross-industry groups, are gaining "far too much political influence" in the European Union (EU) decision-making process, and are calling for the European Commission, the EU executive, "to curb the excessive influence" of such groups. "The complex, often unaccountable EU decision-making procedures and the lack of a truly European public debate are obstacles to democracy, but provide fertile ground for corporate lobbyists," says the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), an Amsterdam-based campaign group which monitors the political influence of business.

"Lobby groups succeed all too frequently in postponing, weakening or blocking sorely needed progress in EU social, environmental and consumer protections," Olivier Hoedeman, research coordinator at the CEO told IPS. "We believe such groups are leading the EU to becoming self-centred in international negotiations, including the EU's negotiating strategies within the World Trade Organisation (WTO) trade talks." The European Parliament website lists 5,039 accredited lobbyists working for a range of familiar names such as McDonald's and Visa. The CEO puts the total number of lobbyists at somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000, and says two-thirds of these represent big business.

In a report 'Lobbying in the European Union: Current Rules and Practices' published last year the European Parliament said more than 70 percent of EU lobbyists work for corporate interests, and only 20 percent represent non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as trade unions, public health organisations and environmental groups. The remaining 10 percent are sectoral lobby groups promoting the interests of regions, cities and international institutions.

Social and environmental groups, although also increasingly represented in Brussels, fear they cannot match the financial and organisational power mobilised by industry lobby groups which offer expertise and advice to an overworked and increasingly pressured European Commission. "The European Commission in general has a lot of work on its plate and there is a limit to how many people it can employ," says Hoedeman. "Because of this it is becoming increasingly dependent on corporate lobby groups for information. For example the directorate-general for trade in the commission actively seeks partnership and guidance from lobby groups."

Last month 50 NGOs wrote an open letter to the European Commission warning of "the excessive influence of corporate lobby groups over EU policy making" that they say is approaching levels seen in the United States. The NGOs says all European commissioners and other Commission officials should be obliged to accept "substantial and well-defined cooling off periods" to prevent what they call "revolving door cases". They point to the case of former trade commissioner Leon Brittan (1993-94), who within a year of leaving the Commission became a consultant on WTO issues at the law firm Herbet Smith, vice-chairman of the investment bank UBS Warburg and advisory director at Unilever.

The civil society coalition are calling for legislation similar to the U..S. lobbying disclosure act under which corporations, public relations firms and lobby groups are obliged to report comprehensively on issues they are lobbying for, for which clients, and with what budget. But while many NGOs agree that corporate lobby groups have the means to push forward their views, they say it is difficult to measure their success. Simon Wilson, director of the Platform of European Social NGOs, an alliance of representative European federations and networks of NGOs, says there is an important role for the Commission to play in the lobby system. "We need to know where the Commission is getting the advice from and there has to be more transparency from both sides," he told IPS. "If there's no transparency there will be a lack of confidence in the whole system."

The new European Commission has recognised that it has an image problem and has tried to address it by creating a new post for a commissioner responsible for institutional relations and communication strategy. Margot Wallstrí¶m who assumed that new role last month, promised at the start of her mandate that one of her first tasks will be to hold brainstorming sessions with civil society which the Commission sees as representing "ordinary Europeans." While many NGOs welcome the new communications portfolio, they express concern over some of Wallstrí¶m's fellow commissioners and in particular, Peter Mandelson, commissioner for trade. "When in office, Peter Mandelson should urgently break with this tradition of secretive corporate influence over EU trade policy and actively support the introduction of EU legislation on transparency and ethics for lobbyists at the EU institutions," said Erik Wesselius of CEO.

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