Time to curb lobbyists at the EU

19 June 2008

Time to curb lobbyists at the EU

Euro-MPs are buried under an avalanche of one-sided information. Members of the national Parliament, on the other hand, have seen, in direct contact, the malign effects of lobbyists reduced.

by Harry van Bommel, Sharon Gesthuizen and Erik Meijer, respectively Members of Parliament and Member of the European Parliament for the SP.

Maintaining contacts with interest groups is one of the core tasks of popular representatives. Nobody denies that. Nevertheless, according to Han ten Broeke and Hein Greven (Financiele Dagblad, 10th April) you have to reckon with the image – that lobbying groups are capable of dictating motions to Members of Parliament. The image exists, however, as a result of criticism of the Brussels lobby circus. Comparison with the Dutch situation falls short.

In Brussels there are more than 15,000 lobbyists active. Around two-thirds represent business corporations. This isn't so far short of the 25,000 officials who work for the European Commission. The influence of lobbyists should not be underestimated. They produce a huge flood of information.

Euro-MPs are, of course, themselves responsible for judging the quality of this information before deciding whether to make use of it. The problem is that so much of this flood is one-sided, and the Euro-MP often finds it difficult to offer anything with which to balance this.

One reason for this is the lack of sufficient support for MEPs. Another is that it is often not clear by whom and on whose behalf one is being lobbied. Euro-MPs are confronted with patients' organisations financed by the pharmaceutical industry, for instance. Cover groups of this kind, which exist in their dozens in Brussels, are often established and operated by lobbying firms which have signed the voluntary code of conduct for lobbyists.

Ten Broeke and Greven assert that "both public affairs and politics thrive in daylight." That sounds fine, but the reality is that "for profit" lobbyists in Brussels, whatever the cost, try to avoid making public who their clients are and how much money these clients are paying in order to influence European policy.

In addition, these lobbying groups exercise their influence primarily in the preparatory phase of legislation. A recent investigation by ALTER-EU (an alliance of social organisations which advocates a binding code of conduct for lobbyists in Brussels) revealed that corporate business is hugely over-represented in the expert groups which advise the European Commission on policy issues.

The national parliament is of ever diminishing importance for business in the Netherlands. It is from Brussels that the legislation emanates which has the most impact on the activities of corporations and other firms. Moreover, other interest groups are starkly under-represented there, because the roots of these groups tend to be localised. Members of Parliament in The Hague notice in direct contact ever fewer instances of adverse effects of lobbying and less unevenness of representation. It is with EU legislation that corporate lobbyists are most concerned. Tackling the Brussels lobbying machine is overdue and urgently needed.

This article appeared in Het Financieele Dagblad (The Financial Daily) of 19th June 2008

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