The truth about lobbying in the EU – At least 25.000 lobbyists in Brussels

Legal lobbying in the European institutions exists (and thrives) in Brussels. Of course, there are also gray areas. But how do the mechanisms work?

sg Qatar-gate, European Union

The term "lobby" comes from the English word lobby which means "reception room" in a hotel. Presumably, the big hotels lend themselves to behind-the-scenes contacts, away from prying eyes.

"Certainly in Brussels, with 900 accredited journalists and even more who are not officially accredited, there is no guarantee of a meeting away from prying eyes. Perhaps that is why a self-respecting lobby maintains its own space, which can be called an "institution ", "representation", "liaison" or simply office", comments Deutsche Welle.

At least 25.000 lobbyists are active in Brussels. In Greece, lobbying is usually identified with powerful business groups. In international literature and community practice it has a somewhat different meaning.

"Lobbying" is called any attempt to influence the legislative or executive power, "regardless of whether it serves noble or nefarious purposes or just profit," the newspaper notes. "Consequently, not only the shipowners and the pharmaceutical industry are lobbying, but also the state of Bavaria, the trade unions, Greenpeace, the Church of Greece."

However, not all lobbyists act in the same way. In a recent interview, Ariel Bruner, representative of the ecological organization BirdLife in Brussels, said that he certainly lobbies the European institutions, but "we don't bribe politicians, we don't bring down tractors to block their offices, we can't promise them jobs with fat salaries after completing their term. The only weapons we have at our disposal are passion, logic and facts."

"Necessary part" of the legislative process

Few Greek MEPs have spoken about the action of the lobbies. In an earlier report by Deutsche Welle, Professor Antonis Trakatellis, at the time MEP of the ND and president of the "Scientific Committee" (STOA) of the Parliament, said that "contact with lobbies can be useful, especially when specialized knowledge is required in the legislative procedure. For example, if you are the Parliament's rapporteur on embryonic stem cell research, how do you get access to the necessary information? But contact with lobbies must be done transparently and with specific specifications."

Answering the question of what he would do if someone approached him in the corridor or on the sidelines of an event to "inform him", the Greek MEP said that "in that case I would tell him to call the office, make an appointment, which is recorded and then the update can be made".

On the official website of the European Parliament we read that contact with lobbies "constitutes a legitimate and necessary part of the legislative process". But how is transparency ensured?Some steps have been taken in recent years. In 2014, the EU established the mandatory recording of appointments with lobbyists held by the powerful heads of Directorates-General in the Commission. In 2019 the European Parliament stipulated that MEPs involved in the drafting of new legislation (rapporteurs, shadow rapporteurs, committee chairs) will publish all their contacts with lobbyists online.

Interesting conclusions are already emerging. A report by German Radio (DLF) on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and the US found in 2015, when the relevant negotiation had reached a critical point, that 75% of the appointments concerned representatives of the business world and just 13% NGO partners. Research by the Corporate Europe Observatory, which attempts to record lobbying activities, points out that in 2021 Google alone invested more than five million euros per year on lobbying, while similar amounts were allocated by companies such as Facebook and Microsoft.

Shortcomings of the current legislation

A gap in the current legislation, highlighted by Qatargate, is that there is no obligation to record meetings between representatives of the European institutions and representatives of states. Another gap had been pointed out since 2014 by the "European Ombudsman" Emily O'Reilly, (an institution equivalent to the Ombudsman). "Even the lowest-ranking employees' appointments should be recorded," O'Reilly said. "It would be naïve to think that the drive for influence ends at the top of the hierarchy." The proposal was rejected by the Commission with the argument that "only the political leadership is accountable to public opinion".

O'Reilly has also denounced the policy of "revolving doors", a "gray zone" for the influence of lobbies, which is difficult to regulate. Simply put, the problem is this: When a high-ranking European official leaves office and is shortly afterwards hired by a leading business group, who guarantees that he has not received prior promises of employment in exchange for "favorable treatment" during the The issue had already been hotly debated in Brussels in 1999. At the time, Germany's Martin Bangemann, Commissioner for Telecommunications and a leading member of the Liberal Democrats (FDP), had made a deal, even before completing his work at the Commission, to work as lobbyist at Spain's Telefonica.

Before the euro-crisis broke out...

A few years before the eurozone debt crisis broke out, the then Transport Commissioner Siim Kalas, in an interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit, had spoken with unusual frankness about the action of the lobbies in Brussels. He even revealed a specific example, which probably acquires particular weight in the light of the developments that followed: "Recently a case became known, in which the regulatory framework for the control of the financial markets was changed at the last minute and the proposals of a lobby group" said the Commissioner from Estonia. To add: "Fortunately, so far we have not had a really big scandal (unlike the Abramov case in the USA)..."

All this in November 2006. Of course, at that time the measures regarding the mandatory registration of appointments with lobbyists, which were established later, had not yet come into force. Siim Kalas claimed that he wanted stricter measures, but this is impossible, because national governments would not support "draconian" legislation.

The "side income" of politicians

At that time, the case of the German MEP Elmar Brock was discussed, who, alongside his activity in the European Parliament, worked as vice-president of the publishing group Bertelsmann. He himself said that he has nothing to apologize for and besides, he discloses the "side income" from his other activities, unlike many of his colleagues, who keep it quiet.

"Theoretically for MEPs there is no incompatibility with other professional activities, unless the MEP's country of origin stipulates something different. It is recalled that in Greece the "incompatible" was previously established, only to be revoked very quickly, on the (realistic, here we speak) reasoning that it motivated only unemployed people to engage in politics, with all that this entails for the quality of the legislative process" notes DW.

According to Transparency International data for 2021, 27% of MEPs currently maintain parallel professional activities. In some cases the "collateral" income even exceeds the MEP's salary. The highest income is recorded by the Polish MEP of the European People's Party (EPP) and former foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who, in addition to the salary of the MEP, receives 40.000 euros per month for "consulting activities".

Transparency International warns that there is an issue of "conflict of interest" when the side activity concerns a subject related to that of the MEP. An example is the Finnish Social Democrat MEP Miapetra Koumbula-Natri, who sits on the European Parliament's Committee on Industry and Energy (ITRE) and works for two energy companies alongside her parliamentary duties. The rule is, however, that parallel professional activity is permitted for an MEP, while it is prohibited for a Commissioner.

From Barroso to Ettinger

But what happens when the Commissioner takes up a well-paid position of responsibility in the private sector once he 'retires'? The case of the former president of the Commission, the Portuguese José Manuel Barroso, who was hired by Goldmann Sachs two years after his term, had caused a sensation. Typically, however, he had adhered to the "code of ethics" which requires at least 18 months to elapse before taking up a new position in a related subject. More generally, with the European elections of 2014 there was a significant renewal of the political staff in Brussels. A few years later, the German newspaper Tagesspiegel found that 13 of the 27 Commissioners of the second "Barroso Commission" had taken up high-ranking positions in lobbying firms or other businesses, while the same happened to 185 MEPs who completed their term in 2014.

The Ettinger case

A few days ago, while the first complaints about Qatargate had been heard, the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, proposed to the European Parliament to establish an "Ethics Council", following the standards of a corresponding body operating in the Commission. Would that help? The answer is not easy, if we consider the case of Ginder Oettinger, former Commissioner for the Budget and formerly for the Digital Economy.

Just one year after the end of his term, the German politician appeared on the payroll of 13 large companies and scientific institutions. According to SPIEGEL, it decided to work with, among others, the construction company Herrenknecht, the French fund management company Amundi and the consulting firms Deloitte and Kekst CNC. Apparently he had received an "exceptional permit" from the Commission, which is provided for in the current regulatory framework.

With the power of comics

"Until today, the European Parliament presents itself as the guardian of legitimacy, controlling and criticizing the other institutions for issues of corruption or favoritism. It is characteristic that in 2002 the General Directorate of Information and Public Relations of the European Parliament had the brilliant idea to publish a comic, "Lavomeno Nero", (texts Christina Cuadra, Rudi Miel, design Dominique David), in an attempt to project, with an original way, the work of MEPs. Later the publication won an award at the Angoulême international comics festival.

The central heroine in "Tainted Water" is the MEP Irina Vega, who drafts amendments to protect water in a European directive and receives threats from large business groups. A "lead mine in Southern Europe" is also included in the problematic cases. But Irina Vega will find the edge. At her side is Alex, her assistant at the European Parliament, as well as two fearless photographers, Zak and Kostas."

Source: Deutsche Welle