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Dancing to a corporate tune

It takes two to tango in the lobbying game - the lobbyist and the public official being lobbied. So pick your partners for the Worst EU Lobby awards. Owen Espley of the Corporate Europe Observatory reports

December 1, 2006
3 min read

There are an estimated 15,000 lobbyists in Brussels, with around 70 per cent working for big business.

From the tiniest technical detail of legislation to the central thrust of the European Commission’s activities, lobbyists are working hard to influence the work of the EU, where shifting even a comma can mean millions of euros difference in profit to a business. But the lobbying problem is not all about the lobbyists, who are paid to gain influence in whatever way they can. The ultimate reason for making their influence visible is to hold politicians and public officials to account.

This is not a complicated idea, it’s democratic scrutiny. Take the example of Günter Verheugen, the EU commissioner for enterprise and industry, whose fondness for big business earned him two nominations in the 2006 Worst EU Lobby awards, coorganised by Corporate Europe Observatory.

The first nomination relates to Verheugen’s instigation of several ‘high level groups’ to influence policy making, which in effect institutionalise corporate lobbying and have the potential to undermine the role of the European Parliament in scrutinising EU policies.

The high level group on ‘energy, competitiveness and the environment’, for example, is dominated by big energy companies and has only three representatives from NGOs and trade unions – and it includes no renewable energy bodies at all.

Another of Verhuegen’s high level groups, Cars 21, focused on making the automotive industry fit for the 21st century, shows the likely influence of these corporate-friendly bodies. Its proposals contain no new policies to combat rising overall emissions and actually weaken several existing measures.

Verheugen’s second nomination is for his role, jointly with EU commissioner Vladimir Spidla, in wiping out years of consultation with civil society on corporate social responsibility (CSR). Despite large reservations about the mandate, many NGOs and trade unions engaged in a two-year consultation process in what was called the European Multi-stakeholder Forum on Corporate Social Responsibility. This at least involved non-corporate interests – even though its membership was skewed towards business and its end report was dismissed by many NGOs as adopting a lowest common denominator approach.

Now, though, the commission has broken entirely from the multistakeholder forum and released its own communication on CSR, which waters down the already weak recommendations and establishes a voluntary alliance between the commission and business. This emphasises the role of business as the ‘principal’ actor in CSR. The European employers federation, UNICE, told its members that even seeming concessions to NGOs and trade unions within this new framework would have ‘no real impact’.

The Worst EU Lobby awards come at a time when the commission is considering what actions it will take to tackle the secrecy surrounding EU lobbying as part of its European Transparency Initiative. The indications are it will opt for what the lobbyists have advocated – a voluntary system, whereby lobbyists will be free to remain in the shadows as long as it suits their purpose.

To find out more about lobbying and business-friendly EU public servants, visit www.worstlobby.eu and cast your vote in the Worst EU Lobby awards

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