Euromyths (2/10): Lobbies, not always a bad thing

24 July 2012 – De Groene Amsterdammer (Amsterdam)

Lobbies hovering around Brussels are legion but what is their role? And do they win every time? In the second part of its investigation into euromyths, the Groene Amsterdammer analyses the power relations between EU institutions and pressure groups.

The question is not whether there are many lobbyists in Brussels, because there are.

Most experts agree that there are between fifteen and twenty thousand lobbyists in Brussels. Even though that is a lot, the most common reaction is: there are also a lot of lobbyists in The Hague, only they’re hidden from view.

The situation in Brussels, on the other hand, has been intentionally thrown open. Lobbyists and interest groups are invited as experts to assist in legislation at an early stage. The draft legislation is published at an early stage and presented to everyone, with a request for comments. While all of this may sound a bit perturbing, there is something to be said in favour of this process.

The European Commission cannot be both a small, efficient apparatus and at the same time be able to know and do everything itself. In other words: knowledge of the industry and outsiders is necessary. What is even more important is that this method enables the European Commission to create a supporting base. Proponents believe that the involvement of the various interest groups is a good thing.

Power ratios are distorted

But the question is whether a level playing field exists between the various interest groups. Does a small, public watchdog with very little funding have the same influence as a big, rich industry? According to critics this is definitely not the case. “Eight times out of ten the party with the most money wins,” says Erik Wesselius of Corporate Europe Observatory. “There are too many examples of reports which have been amended to the point of destruction, which the drafters ended up abandoning.”

He mentions examples like the stoplight system for labelling food: green for healthy, red for unhealthy. But in the end it didn't happen. “This was purely due to the gigantic resistance on the part of the food industry,” says Wesselius.

In some sectors the balance is evidently absent. “Citigroup has forty people in Brussels,” says former lobbyist Pim van Ballekom. Yet there is virtually no strong financial watchdog. The power ratios are also distorted in, for example, retail, logistics or food production. In other sectors, like the environment and human rights, NGOs do have powerful representation. And in the Internet sector small action groups are very effective, as recently turned out with the ACTA agreement that tried to tackle piracy in a battle that was lost by the large industries (film, music).

Translated from the Dutch by Kelly Boom

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