The European Commission – Target of a Gigantic Lobby Industry

Roland Kulke, RLF Brussels

The liberal theory of the political system resembles the neo-classical concept of the market: If all act in their interests, the public good will in the end emerge strengthened from the process. Of course, general rules must apply, but basically, everyone should be allowed to promote his or her own interests to their best ability. Looking at the reality in the centre of European politics one might have second thoughts about this. The European Parliament and, even more so, the European Commission, have become the main targets of a gigantic lobby industry. Washington is the only place where more lobbyists are to be found.

More than 10,000 lobbyists in Brussels represent the interests of certain groups, be they environmentalists, Third World NGOS, or regional administrations. In reality however, the field is clearly dominated by the interests of capital: 70% of lobbyists are at work promoting these interests. Some may recall the Chemicals Directive. The German industry web site proudly proclaims that the lobby succeeded in “cutting the original burden on the industry by more than half” (article in German). Small wonder, when one considers that the chemical industry association CEFIK spends some €37 million on its Brussels office, and employs a staff of 140.

Another dramatic example is the findings of the study “Working the System – British American Tobacco’s Influence on the European Union Treaty and Its Implications for Policy”. This study was financed by the Smoke Free Partnership, the European Respiratory Society and the French Institut National du Cancer and thus proves that counter power is at least in parts possible. In this case unfortunately the capital interests have already been so successful that a push back of their success seems unlikely. Usually lobby groups try to influence specific laws which might reduce the profit of capital faction in one specific case. In the case which has been analysed here the outcome of the lobby influence can be characterized as “meta-influence”.

What does this mean? Well, it means that the big industrial capital achieved to change the way lobby influence is possible in future times. Everybody who was so lucky to have attended a party congress for the first time might remember the vehemence with which rules of procedure are debated – although at first glance these rules are less interesting then the debates on different political contents. At least after half an hour of watching the congress, even the non-involved guest will understand: these rules of procedure determine to a large extent the political content and outcome of the congress as they influence a priori which thoughts and groups may influence the outcome of the debate. The same can be said about rules of the European Union. Some of them determine who is likely to be able to influence the decision making process. Exactly these rules have now be influenced by the wishes of MNC’s so that an “Impact Assessment” is now mandatory for all major EU policies which favours “corporate interests by overemphasizing economic impacts and failing to adequately assess health impacts.”

The Summary of the article states that the final results of years of intensive lobbying are that the new EU treaty “(i) provide[s] an economic framework for evaluating all policy decisions, implicitly prioritising costs to businesses; (ii) secure[s] early corporate involvement in policy discussions; (iii) bestow[s] the corporate sector with a long-term advantage over other actors by increasing policymakers’ dependence on information they supplied; and (iv) provide[s] businesses with a persuasive means of challenging potential and existing legislation.” The important point here is that these changes were introduced in the primary law of the European Union which can be changed only via a new treaty for the whole EU.

At least some wings of the European Commission seem to feel uncomfortable with this situation. For that reason the European Commission introduced a lobby register in June 2008. The lobby groups were cordially invited to register here, with the “dramatic” effect that 40 % of the Brussels-based consultancies have signed up. The Danish newspaper Politiken reports that lobbyists openly state that they won’t sign up in the register as long as it is voluntary. Insiders of the lobby business know that many of the so called consultancies which have actually signed up have used this as advertisement for themselves as they are so small and negligible that they are in dire need of any publicity. That means: many of the important high level consultancies haven’t signed up while many of the ones who really have registered are irrelevant – so much for the effect of the Commission’s work.

Other Commission’s efforts to strengthen the “opposite side” organisationally and financially are not much help either. First, their support is far too low, and second, the Commission is not all that serious about creating a counterbalance, as one can see from the minimal level of registration of lobby groups with the Commission. Presumably, the Commission, as a public office, simply hopes to gain legitimacy by winning appreciation from parts of the “good” civil society.


Cashing in on Secrecy?

Smith KE, Fooks G, Collin J, Weishaar H, Mandal S, et al. (2010) “Working the System”—British American Tobacco’s Influence on the European Union Treaty and Its Implications for Policy: An Analysis of Internal Tobacco Industry Documents. PLoS Med 7: e202.

See also:

>> Lobbycontrol
>> Corporate Europe Observatory