30,000 lobbyists and counting: is Brussels under corporate sway?

Illustration - Hemicycle in Strasbourg, during a plenary  session

When the Polish MEP Róża Thun was elected five years ago, she thought the job would be fairly straightforward. She hadn’t reckoned with the lobbyists.

Illustration - Hemicycle in Strasbourg, during a plenary  session
Illustration – Hemicycle in Strasbourg, during a plenary session

Take mobile phone charges. She saw the fact that EU citizens pay eye-watering sums in other EU states as an anomaly that needed fixing. But it wasn’t that simple. “We had telephone companies and lobbyists who started to invade us,” she recalls. “They obviously didn’t want to reduce roaming charges because it would hit them in the pocket.”

To stroll around the vast, ugly and permanent building site that is Brussels’ European district is to brush up against the power of the lobbies. Every office block, every glass and steel construction within a kilometre of the European commission, council and parliament is peopled by Europe’s biggest corporate names.

Thousands of companies, banks, law firms, PR consultancies and trade associations are there to bend ears and influence the regulations and laws that shape Europe’s single market, fix trade deals, and govern economic and commercial behaviour in a union of 507 million.

Lobbying is a billion-euro industry in Brussels. According to Corporate Europe Observatory, a watchdog campaigning for greater transparency, there are at least 30,000 lobbyists in Brussels, nearly matching the 31,000 staff employed by the European commission and making it second only to Washington in the concentration of those seeking to affect legislation. Lobbyists sign a transparency register run by the parliament and the commission, though it is not mandatory.

By some estimates, they influence 75% of legislation. In principle, lobbyists give politicians information and arguments during the decision-making process. In practice, the corridors of the parliament often teem with individuals, who meet MEPs in their offices or in open spaces such as the “Mickey Mouse bar” (nicknamed so because of the shape of its seats) inside the parliament.

They explain their concerns, provide a “position paper”, and send in suggestions for amendments to legislative proposals. Of course, the final decision is taken by MEPs. But examples are legion of the tail wagging the dog.

Lobbying is such a crucial part of the climate in Brussels that it has spawned manuals, a documentary (Who Really Runs the EU?) and even “the worst lobby awards”. Not surprisingly, the biggest movers and shakers agitate for the biggest industries with the most to gain – and lose – from European legislation.

It is a fertile time to be an energy lobbyist in Brussels. Vladimir Putin’s stranglehold on Europe’s gas supplies and campaign to dismember Ukraine have thrust energy to the top of the international and European agenda.

When Barack Obama visited EU headquarters in March, he had stern words in public – and even stronger remarks in private, according to senior diplomats – for Europe’s leaders, telling them they had to risk the wrath of their voters and go for fracking and shale gas to help immunise Europe against Russian blackmail.

In a letter to Downing St in November, Ivan Rogers, the UK’s ambassador to the EU, laid out a strategy for leaning on the commission to get it to adopt a minimalist position on shale exploration, entailing no new EU legislation. A week later David Cameron wrote to the commission chief, José Manuel Barroso, insisting on the light-touch regulation.

America’s shale revolution, entrenching low energy prices in the US, is having a big impact, leading to a bonanza for the fracking lobbies in Brussels.

From shale to climate-change policies, from car exhaust rules to renewables, from carbon-capture technologies to carbon-trading schemes, the energy lobby is highly active and successful in Brussels, with companies such as BP and Shell maintaining big operations aimed at shaping policy. “In a nutshell the energy-intensive lobbies say they are not competitive, especially vis-a-vis the US, because of shale and the low prices there,” says an industry insider engaged in Brussels lobbying. “They argue that we’re much too focused on renewables and climate change and that we should be much more open like the US.”

The most effective lobbying in Brussels centres on the gamekeepers-turned-poachers, the revolving door of senior commission officials, diplomats, and MEPs who retire or quit public office and instantly take up offers to translate their contacts and inside knowledge into lucrative lobbying work, often by moving to an office across the street.

Take Jean de Ruyt, a Belgian who knows Brussels inside out. As ambassador to the EU, the career diplomat in effect ran Belgium’s EU presidency four years ago, then retired, took up a job with a US law firm and is now a leading figure in the shale lobby.

His No 2 as ambassador is now chief of staff to Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European council steering EU summits.

For the shale lobby, Ukraine and Putin may represent less of a crisis than a huge opportunity. “The Ukraine crisis is seen as a blessing, giving the shale-gas lobby the perfect chance to say if you want to get rid of dependence on Russian gas…” said Antoine Simon, who analyses the politics of the extractive industries for Friends of the Earth.
Woman smoking cigarette
Lobbies in Brussels rushed to launch a counteroffensive against an EU tobacco directive. Photograph: Bernhard Classen/Alamy

In February the EU approved a new tobacco directive, which is designed to make smoking less attractive, particularly to young people. The lobbies in Brussels did not scrimp on resources as they rushed to launch a counteroffensive. About 200 representatives of three of the biggest tobacco companies, Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco, spent four weeks in the city, hogging hotels and spending more than €3m (£2.5m) on an action plan to weaken future regulation in two parts: persuading the European commission, and trying to convince MEPs and national governments.

Juan Páramo is a spokesman for Mesa del Tabaco, which represents the Spanish tobacco industry. He says he met Spanish MEPs “on various occasions” to explain the impact the directive would have on a “key” sector for Spain.

“Lobbies aren’t how they are depicted in the movies, but you have to be careful with your strategies,” says Andrés Perelló, a veteran socialist MEP and a member of the environment, public health and food safety committee. He is used to contending with industries relating to cars, fuel or medicine – which are all heavily exposed to regulatory changes – but he cannot think of a single industry that piles as much pressure on as the tobacco sector. He has no problem with lobbies when they stick to an “adequate” code of conduct. He has also rejected many of their manoeuvres. “We are always ready to have a dialogue, we don’t feel pressurised by anybody,” he says. Any time a lobbyist comes to see him is “totally transparent”, he says, and one of his assistants always takes notes of these meetings. “To be clear,” he adds.

Another MEP felt pressurised by the visits, which he says were “very cordial, and absolutely threatening”. He says the lobbying did not affect his final vote. “It didn’t taste good, but all of these procedures were legal,” he says.

With something as sensitive as tobacco regulation, health associations act as a sort of anti-lobby. “Faced with the tremendous pressure of the tobacco monopolies, nurses have had to do something they were not at all used to: lobby for public health,” says Francisco Rodríguez, president of Spain’s national committee for the prevention of smoking.

Nonetheless, far from the influence of the ordinary channels, the map of pressures on an oligopolistic market as important as tobacco brings with it all kinds of intrigues behind the scenes. Confidential documents published by the Guardian in September shows how the giant of the sector, Philip Morris International, managed to postpone a vote by MEPs on the anti-smoking directive. “It was quite disgusting,” says a high-level parliamentary source.
EU flags are seen out outside European commission headquarters in Brussels
European Union flags outside the European commission headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

One of the principal instruments in Brussels is diplomatic lobbying by member states. “The big embassies make a conscious effort to stay in contact with the strongest national delegations in parliament,” says Florent Saint Martin, associate professor at Sciences Po, and a former MEP assistant who founded his own lobby consultancy. French MEPs receive detailed memos from the general secretariat of European affairs, an intergovernmental structure in Paris. A European affairs minister acts as the official correspondent with the European parliament.

“It’s not so much as explaining how a vote should go,” says Jean-Paul Gauzès, a French MEP and a financial specialist, “but about providing explanations on the texts which will be voted upon, and on defending the French interest in them.”

“It’s now possible for us to check in with an MEP to counter or amend a text we consider to be against our interests,” says Alexis Dutertre, a permanent representative for France to the EU. “However, having 28 member states today is more difficult than having six, 12 or 15 to win a majority, or build a minority blocking other states with.” Colleagues are supposed to spend as much time at the European parliament as in the European council, the bread-and-butter work of the European diplomat.

But the relationship between diplomat and MEP could be under pressure if the far-right parties gain seats at the European elections. “A Front National delegation will cause a really big problem because they are absent, to the point of being incontrollable,” predicts Olivier Costa, director of political studies at the College of Europe in Bruges. Costa believes France’s position is coming to resemble that of the UK, which has its fair share of Eurosceptic MPs.

“If the Front National win 20 seats, we’ll only be able to count on some 50 useful MPs,” says a French spokesman. “That will rank us alongside the next level down of populated countries, such as Spain and Poland.”
Big tech
Facebook’s data centre in Lulea
A man walks past a logo created from pictures of Facebook users in the company’s data centre in Lulea, in Swedish Lapland. Photograph: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

One of the most prominent Brussels lobbyists is Erika Mann of Facebook. She spent 15 years with the German Social Democrats before walking through the “revolving door” to the lobbyists.

The latest figures in the official EU lobby register reveal Facebook spent less than €500,000 on lobbying in Brussels in 2012. That’s surprisingly low: Facebook invested about $2.8m (£1.7m) in the first quarter of 2014 alone in the US. But US tech companies such Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft rarely work as individual companies but more in corporate alliances. Jan-Philipp Albrecht, the German Green MEP responsible for the data protection reform act in parliament, estimates that more than half of companies that contact him are from the US. Other MEPs say the pressure is unprecedented.

In February 2013 the lobbyplag.eu website found some MEPs were not only inspired to make amendments suggested by US firms, but copied and pasted huge passages of text sent by lobbyists. Understanding who is doing the lobbying is not always straightforward: not all lobbyists are open about their allegiance – some even send their “suggestions” on paper with no clear letterhead.

Mann is more candid, always present in the debate, a regular on the public speaking and debate circuit, even turning up to European parliament sessions. It’s hard to say how influential she has been after just a few months in the job. But one thing is for sure: the longer negotiations run on, the longer lobbyists kick about to try to influence proceedings. With data protection, as with everything in Brussels, “nothing is approved until everything is approved”.
Consumer protection
Compared with these other formidable pressure groups, consumer protection is the poor relation of the lobbying family. The only voice for consumers in Brussels is Beuc, the Bureau of European Consumer Organisations. It has 35 employers and almost half its budget comes from the EU itself, making negotiation tricky.

If, for example, a consumer is tricked by a dodgy tour operator, there is little the EU can do. Beuc has acted in a few cases for consumers, mobile phone roaming charges and food labelling being among them. “Our task is to balance the industrial lobbies,” says Johannes Kleis, a spokesman for Beuc. But in terms of fighting industry lobbies, it’s David v Goliath. “One regret is that we have only recently started looking into consumer issues in financial services,” Kleis says. While this may be handled at a nation-state level, Kleis says it’s not enough “given that the market is global”.


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