EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Lobbying in EU Institutions

Written by | Thursday, August 29th, 2013
M. Jakub Janda

MEPs Straddling a Thin Line between Public and Private Interest

Exclusive interview with a senior lobbyist working for a leading Brussels-based middle-size consultancy company. The lobbyist agreed to an interview under condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.

Could you describe the registration process of lobbing subjects in the European Parliament? It is usually considered as a role-model for national parliaments both in and outside the EU in terms of its relatively high level of transparency.

First of all, I would stress that the EU’s ‘Transparency Register’ is voluntary. This means that, in contrast with the laws and rules on lobbying that are in place in the US, lobbying firms operating in Brussels can decide not to put their names in the register. That, of course, causes problems for transparency, as about 100 major companies that lobby at EU institutions are currently missing from the list. And these are no small names and include top brands (Apple, Heineken, General Motors…) and biggest banks (Goldman Sachs, HSBC, Belfius…). It is obvious that this creates skewed perspective of the Brussels’ lobbying scene.

And do these major corporations that are not in the EU’s ‘Transparency Register’ get access to some of the higher levels of the EU administration?

Yes, of course, through the information provided by transparency groups, such as Alter-EU, it has been revealed that top EU officials regularly meet with such companies. Namely, Olli Rehn, EU Commissioner who oversees the absolutely crucial area of economic affairs, met with Goldman Sachs alone three times between January 2011 and February 2012. In fact, over 60 percent of Rehn’s meetings are with unregistered lobbyists.

Still, it is quite clear, I think, that the EU’s register is better than most of what the EU member states’ legislation can currently offer. Yet, this shouldn’t make us blind to its flaws. Slovak Commissioner Sefcovic who has the responsibility for the Transparency Register will have to prove that he is up to the task of preparing a suitable revision. My personal opinion that doesn’t represent a majority view on the Brussels’ lobbying scene is that the registration should be made mandatory.

If a lobbying subject does not use the ‘Transparency Register’, is there any direct or indirect sanction imposed against it? Or is being in the register seen purely as a matter of prestige?

No, and that is connected to what I said before: it depends on the consultancy to either put its name in the ‘Transparency Register’ or leave it out. If the company is not on the register, it cannot officially access the European Parliament as its consultants do not receive an entrance badge. Naturally, there are ways around it as the full time staff of the European Parliament can sign in any visitor. This is most usually an MEP’s assistant, as obviously you most likely come to see an MEP, so it’s them who let you in. And, in the end, nothing prevents you from inviting someone out for a lunch or coffee. Being on the register is rather a matter of prestige and transparency, and for a consultancy that has no publicly controversial companies as their clients, there are not many reasons why not to be listed there.

Which part of the legislative process in the EU institutions you deem most vulnerable?

I would dispute your use of the word ‘vulnerable’ here. This somehow implies that lobbying has necessarily subversive influence, and consultants and their clients are some sort of an enemy of the decision-maker. But to first answer your question, all EU laws are of a smaller or greater interest for lobbyists as all legislation can be regarded both from the perspective of public and private interest. Obviously, there are several highly exposed areas, which have the impact on the largest number of companies or on those corporations that have most financial means at their disposal. After the crisis in the Eurozone started, these are most notably financial regulations and directives, but there are also traditional and long-standing areas such as public health (where the biggest issue now is the Tobacco Products Directive), merger and competition rules, or consumer rights. Institutionally speaking, the most opaque are the Council of the EU and the European Commission’s committees and expert groups, but that merits a discussion of its own.

But what about those scandals that broke out as MEPs worked in the name of certain lobbyists in their respective committees in the European Parliament?

Well, the reality is that the MEPs work with lobbyists all the time. That means that lobbyists, who represent private interests, are in touch with them, and in turn, when working on a law, MEPs regularly talk to companies and private associations. Since public interest should have a regard for the well-being of groups and individuals, I think that generally speaking such input is good and necessary. The problem comes in when a politician, instead of starting his judgments from the perspective of the public interest, begins with a private one – whether his own or someone else – and acts according to that. Of course, as outside observers, we will find that there is a thin line between these two kinds of behavior. So, in the end, we have to take each law and consider whether it is in the public or not.

Could you perhaps mention a concrete example of when an MEP did not obviously act in a public interest?

When one unnamed Czech MEP submitted last year to his committee a proposal for a compromise amendment that was most likely written for him by a German car-maker, this is certainly a worrying development. But, first of all, not because of the fact that the proposal had not been written by the MEP, but because, by excluding sports cars from the measure, it undermined the original legislative initiative, which aimed at reducing car noise. This is a political and ideological issue irrespective of whether the MEP acts on his own behalf with the public interest in mind, or by just copying the proposal prepared for him by someone else.

While it is very rare to find out that a politician has only private interests on their mind, it is fairly easy to see that their proposals benefit only such interests or that they are simply politically unacceptable. This is because, as Hannah Arendt stressed many times, in politics we cannot distinguish between being and appearance, and act is all that we can base our judgments on. If we as citizens really judged politicians based on what they do, many of them could not be elected ever again.

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