The European Parliament (EP) has once again been struck by corruption scandals and the issue of lobbying has resurfaced in the wake of the resignation of several MEPs who were caught in a trap laid by Sunday Times journalists disguised as lobbyists. At a time when the EP President, Jerzy Buzek, has announced that there will be “zero tolerance” for any form of corruption, a number of commentators have remarked that in reality the EP is under-equipped to deal with the problem. It can wax indignant and launch an internal inquiry, but it does not have the power to banish “the black sheep.”

The atmosphere at the institution has been increasingly tense since the British Sunday paper’s ‘sting’ operation revealed that certain MEPs could be tempted to accept money in exchange for their support for certain amendments. Regardless of whether it is viewed as a corruption scandal, a lobbying scandal or a media scandal, it is clear that the Sunday Times investigation has undermined the reputation of an entire institution.

The EU is increasingly targeted by lobbyists because European law is increasingly taking over from national legislation, and because power is concentrated in a handful of well defined locations. Along with the interest groups they represent, they have well understood that Brussels is “the epicentre” where they can make the greatest impact. The city is home to thousands of lobbyists, hundreds of public relations companies and law firms, a dozen think-tanks and “the European affairs offices” of hundreds of companies. Civil society and environmental groups cannot compete with the financial and logistical might of industry bodies. For example, the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC) has more lobbyists than all of the environmental protection groups put together.

The European Commission, which has the exclusive power to propose and develop new laws, is one of the priority targets. At the same time, lobbyists’ interest in the European Parliament has grown in proportion to the increasing power of the EP, which has been boosted by the Lisbon Treaty. The parliament now has the authority to approve, block or modify European community proposals and lobbyists are increasingly setting their sights on MEPs.

Former commissioners selling their services and influence

The EU intervenes in highly technical fields that often require significant expertise. But instead of establishing its own experts group, the Commission has left the door open to the lobbyists, who have naturally become consultants to decision makers. Today interest groups have special access to the premises of European institutions, where they do not work for the public good, but attempt to influence European legislation so that it is aligned with the interests of the large companies who are their employers. The pressure groups are careful to hide their real motives by creating shell companies or pretending to work for NGOs or financing "independent experts."

The influence of interest groups operating behind the scenes does not appear to worry the EU. Brussels thrives on the industry of influence, and lives and breathes pressure group power games. Civil servants, diplomats, lobbyists and journalists meet at all times of the day, attend lunches in the European quarter and dinners in Sablons, attend the same cocktail parties, and socialise in the evenings and at weekends. They are all members of the same club which is devoted to the noble cause of the well-being of Europe!

Cases of former commissioners who sell their services and their influence to lobbies, prompting major conflicts of interest that ultimately corrupt the European executive, are on the increase. And this is a problem for Brussels. In spite of the fact that they still receive payments from the EU, six of the 13 commissioners who left their posts in February 2010 are now working in the private sector. And even more surprisingly, they have all joined corporations whose interests they supported during their mandates.

A campaign for transparency

The most notorious case concerns the former Commissioner for enterprise and industry, social-democrat Günter Verheugen. In the course of a term in office from 2004 to 2010, he was often criticised for putting the interests of large companies before social and environmental priorities. Shortly after the end of his mandate, he launched his own consultancy European Experience Company, which now assists “ top leaders of public and private institutions and enterprises” who wish to lobby the EU. The company bills for “strategy recommendations in the area of EU-policy.”

According to German MEP Inge Grasle (CDU), “anyone with money can buy Verheugen’s access to European institutions.” Of course, the case has been investigated by the Commission’s ethics committee, which failed to any see any reason to reproach Verheugen. In passing, it is also worth noting that this committee systematically bends the rules for former commissioners who are officially supposed to wait a year before working as lobbyists.

Representation of interests is a legitimate activity in a democratic state. As part of its drive to increase public confidence, the EU has established a system for the voluntary registration of lobbyists and is preparing to adopt a code of conduct that will ensure the transparent disclosure of interests. According to the NGO Alter-EU, which campaigns for transparency in the field of lobbying, only 40% of lobbying groups have submitted their details to the register.