Lobbies in Brussels

« […] between 20 and 30,000 lobbyists today represent business interests alone in Brussels, a strike force that public authorities and organized civil society are generally unable to counter effectively […] »

Corporate Europe Observatory is a research and advocacy organization founded in 1997 in Amsterdam and based in Brussels since 2009, which studies corporate lobbying at the European level and its impact on EU decisions and legislation. The purpose of this column is to give you an overview, in French, of our main activities, which we hope will contribute to your reflection on the themes proposed by Kaïros.

Financial market reform, EU treaty reform, international trade agreements, energy and climate policies, agriculture and biotechnology, food… So many European policies are likely to be targets for corporate lobbying, so many subjects where commercial arguments are advanced under the cover of technical arguments whose political significance is difficult to measure. Understanding the general issues behind the specific arguments, the business strategies behind the common sense slogans: studying and publishing on corporate lobbying requires translating and tracking the underlying policies and business issues in terms that are accessible to all. A job that the press and media often no longer have the time, or sometimes the will, to do.
We started in 1997 with the book Europe Inc. which told how the current structures of the EU are the result of industrial pressure(1) But this work has lost nothing of its topicality with between 20 and 30,000 lobbyists representing today only the commercial interests in Brussels, a strike force that the public authorities and the organized civil society (trade unions, associations…) generally do not manage to counter effectively, the disproportion of means being too important.

A job, too, that goes far beyond the capacity of an organization of a dozen people. Therefore, we at OEB are restricting ourselves to a limited number of topics among all possible ones. But we also carry out advocacy actions aimed at strengthening the regulation of lobbying at the European level, in order to increase its transparency and its exercise in a regulatory framework that is commensurate with the problem, likely to avoid conflicts of interest, regulatory capture and more generally the misuse of European rules to the benefit of economic interests alone. For example, we are currently working on a census of cases of « revolving doors », an expression referring to European civil servants who change employer in order to lobby on the issues they were previously dealing with, a tactic that is widely used(2).

In view of the topicality and importance of the issues at stake, an important theme of our recent publications has been the EU’s management of the economic crisis. Surprising presence of bankers at summits of heads of state and government(3)treaties instituting austerity policies that are democratic and economic disasters, but allow the main beneficiaries of the policies that caused the crisis to avoid paying the cost of the crisis(4)strengthening the coordination of national economic policies at the European level, but on indicators based solely on financial costs, not on quality of life or nature conservation(5)… All these responses to the crisis reflect the current influence of economic interests, and the domination of the political forces that favor them, on the European decision-making apparatus. What answers can be given to what appears to be an unprecedented challenge to the political, economic and social rights of Europeans for half a century, as well as to dramatically short-sighted and short-term policies? What analyses should be made, what resistance should be led, what alternatives should be proposed to these developments? This is the content of the discussions we hope to have during the conference we are co-organizing on May 5 and 6(6).

At the same time, we were interested in a subject that is perhaps more everyday, but at the crossroads of equally important issues: food. Regulating this is the role of a European institution based in Parma, Italy: the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). This administration deals with food but also, which is very strategic for the food industry, with the various substances that come into contact with them: pesticides, food additives… We have condensed the results of 8 months of research into a recently published report(7)This report documents the various methods by which industry manages to influence the decisions of this administration, in particular by having scientists appointed to certain expert panels who also have economic interests in the sector, or by promoting, through think-tanks such as the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), the adoption of certain methodologies rather than others to evaluate the toxicity of the products studied (including GMOs).

This industry interest in research policy is reflected in the current maneuvering around the EU’s next research framework program, called Horizon 2020(8)but we are more generally interested in the use of experts as vectors of industry interests: the domination by the private sector (banks, insurance companies, pension funds…) of the groups of experts advising the Commission for the reform of the financial markets, for example, is a particularly acute illustration of this problem(9). It is important to understand that all too often the European institutions (especially the Commission and the Parliament) do not have the required internal competences to decide on a problem, and that in this context, offering « free » expertise to these decision-makers is a privileged way of passing certain priorities rather than others in a legislative text or a political strategy document(10). Is this the reason why, one year after Fukushima, the EU still considers nuclear energy as an option to be supported(11)?

On a slightly different, and perhaps more positive note, we also sometimes explore alternatives to commercial management. This was the case for water, for example, a subject we came to by criticizing the lobbying of companies in the sector; we have just published, after two years of work, a book(12) on the current worldwide trend of returning municipal water services to public management, or « remunicipalization ». The different experiences we have studied in this book are as many spotlights on the possibilities, but also the limits, of our current ways of thinking applied to the management of a common good among the most precious of all. Enjoy your reading.

Martin Pigeon, for Corporate Europe Observatory

Notes et références
  1. Le film The Brussels Business, qui vient de sortir en salles, revient de façon très documentée sur ces évènements.
  2. Voir la section “RevolvingDoorWatch” de notre site, http://www.corporateeurope.org/projects/revolvingdoorwatch
  3. What are bankers doing inside EU summits? janvier 2012, http://www.corporateeurope.org/news/what-are-bankers-doing-inside-eu-sum…
  4. Austerity forever, octobre 2011, http://www.corporateeurope.org/publications/austerity-forever, Inspired by big business: the EU Austerity Treaty, mars 2012, http://www.corporateeurope.org/news/inspired-big-business-eu-austerity‑t…
  5. Automatic Austerity; ten things you need to know about the ‘Fiscal Compact’´, mars 2012, http://www.corporateeurope.org/publications/automatic-austerity
  6. EU in Crisis – analysis, resistance and alternatives to corporate Europe, 5 et 6 mai 2012 à Bruxelles, http://www.corporateeurope.org/EU-in-crisis-conf
  7. Conflicts on the menu: a decade of industry influence at the European Food Safety Authority (traduction française disponible sur le site), février 2012, http://www.corporateeurope.org/publications/conflicts-menu
  8. EU research funding: in who’s benefit?, décembre 2012, http://www.corporateeurope.org/publications/eu-research-funding-whos-ben…
  9. DG Internal Market’s expert groups: More needed to break financial industry’s stronghold, décembre 2012, http://www.corporateeurope.org/publications/dg-internal-market-expert-gr…
  10. Dieter Helm: independent advice on the Energy Roadmap 2050?, décembre 2012, http://www.corporateeurope.org/blog/dieter-helm-independent-advice-energ…
  11. A year after Fukushima, is Brussels in the grip of the nuclear industry?, mars 2012, http://www.corporateeurope.org/publications/nuclear-contamination-year‑a…
  12. Remunicipalisation — Putting water back into public hands, Corporate Europe Observatory, Transnational Institute, Municipal Services Project, mars 2012, http://www.corporateeurope.org/publications/remunicipalisation-putting‑w…
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