Is Brussels in the clutches of lobbies?

Today lobby groups wield more power in Brussels than they do in Washington. And in the absence of stricter regulations, they will continue to enjoy unlimited freedom to influence European legislation.

Published on 28 June 2010 at 14:23

Daniel Gueguen may well be a veteran Brussels lobbyist and formidable adversary for transparency campaigners, but to the beneficiaries of his services he is simply a professional with a special gift for persuasion. Gueguen has even founded a sort of lobbying academy: the European Training Institute (ETI). And as he readily admits, Brussels is a paradise for ETI graduates, whom he likes to describe as "people working for business in the European Union."

Brussels has now overtaken Washington to become the world capital of lobbying. Over the last 25 years, the city, which is home to a population of just one million people, many of whom work for Europe's most powerful institutions, has become a gold mine for the professionals who are employed to influence eurocrats. According to the authors of Bursting the Brussels Bubble, which has recently been published by ALTER-EU (the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation), the number of lobbyists in the city has grown from a reported 654 in 1985 to an estimated 15,000 today.

Lobby register unreliable

By way of comparison, there were only 14,000 lobbyists working in Washington in 2009. And the designers of European legislation benefit from a much more comfortable situation than their American counterparts, because the rule book that should regulate their activity has yet to be written.

In June 2008, within the framework of the European Transparency Initiative, the Commission created the Register of interest representatives. However, enrolment on the register remains voluntary, and the data submitted by the 2,771 organisations that have responded to the initiative is sketchy and unreliable. Registrants are only required to input basic information, and as William Dinan of the University of Glasgow points out they are under no obligation to indicate which directive or legislative project they intend to influence.

Receive the best of European journalism straight to your inbox every Thursday

Advisory groups in pay of big business

And that is not all. According to Paul de Clerk, one of the authors of Bursting the Brussels Bubble, interest groups that do register are only asked for a general estimate of the monthly cost of lobbying on behalf of a customer, in a range that extends from 1,000 to one million euros. As a result, it is virtually impossible to determine how much is being spent on the promotion of a particular interest group, or view of legislation in preparation.

On occasion, the impact of EU lobbying verges on the ridiculous: MEPs with no understanding of energy policy suddenly deliver speeches that appear to be scripted by major European energy companies after a few meetings with consultants. To compensate for gaps in its knowledge, the Commission relies heavily on advisory groups, which are supposed to be staffed with independent experts. Officially, these experts are supposed to work for free, but according to the authors of Bursting the Brussels Bubble, they are almost always in the pay of big business.

REACH directive

"For example, if you look at the members of the advisory group for banking and finance, it is easy to identify the experts that have links to Barclays, or Paribas," explains Paul de Clerk. He adds that one of the most successful lobbying initiatives of recent years was the infiltration of the bio-fuels advisory group. And even that pales in comparison to the manoeuvres that influenced work on the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) directive.

In 1998, the European Environment Ministers' Council decided to regulate the industrial use of approximately 100,000 chemical substances that could be produced, imported, and sold even though little was known about the effects of their use on human health and the environment. The plan was for government institutions to verify the potential danger of these substances and where necessary outlaw their use.

Heeding Bayer and BASF

In 2001, the European Commission proposed a monitoring programme for the chemicals industry, which would oblige manufacturers and importers to provide information about the properties of the substances used, and to replace dangerous chemical products with less harmful alternatives — a decision that did much to influence the current development of European lobbying.

The lobbyists, many of whom represented the two main forces opposing the Commission — the Bayer and BASF chemicals companies — immediately complained that the Commission's proposals would undermine the European chemicals industry and inevitably lead to higher unemployment. In 2003, the German chemicals trade association contributed close to a quarter of million euros to political parties: 150,000 to the conservative CDU-CSU, 50,000 to the liberal FDP, and 40,000 to the social-democratic SPD.

Lobbyists continue to enjoy unlimited freedom

The outcome of this lobbying operation, had a considerable impact on the version of the law which was finally adopted. The chemicals industry was still obliged to provide basic information on all chemicals products traded in quantities of more than one tonne. But the provisions of REACH, would now only apply to 30,000 products instead of the 100,000 originally planned.

According to experts, this result played a key role in establishing a new role for lobbying in Brussels. And lobbyists will continue to enjoy unlimited freedom in their attempts to influence the European legislative process until such time as they are clearly shown to have acted illegally. We will have to see a major scandal before there is any hope for proper regulation of the men and women "working for European business."

Was this article useful? If so we are delighted! It is freely available because we believe that the right to free and independent information is essential for democracy. But this right is not guaranteed forever, and independence comes at a cost. We need your support in order to continue publishing independent, multilingual news for all Europeans. Discover our membership offers and their exclusive benefits and become a member of our community now!

Are you a news organisation, a business, an association or a foundation? Check out our bespoke editorial and translation services.

Support independent European journalism

European democracy needs independent media. Join our community!

On the same topic