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EU: The Legions Of Influence -- Lobbying In Brussels

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The democratic process depends upon citizens having access to their political representatives. But what if some citizens have more access than others? In the modern political process, corporations and interest groups, for instance, hire professional lobbyists to present their case to government officials and parliamentarians. In Brussels alone, there are about 10,000 lobbyists seeking the attention of the European Union institutions.

Prague, 8 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Europe's directives, laws, and rules -- mostly covering subjects the average citizen rarely ponders -- number in the thousands and create virtual mountains of documents. The content of such myriad regulations -- take, for instance, one which sets out to what degree buildings can vibrate before suffering structural damage -- are of vital importance to one or other sector of the modern industrial economy. And increasingly, for member states of the European Union, these rules are being framed in Brussels, not at the national level.

This produces uniform standards throughout the Union, standards to which the incoming Central and East European members must also adhere. The Eastern candidates are already busy adapting their legislation to fit the thousands of pages of the Union's body of rules.

With these rules only growing in importance, the Union's industrialists, businesspeople, and farmers have moved to make sure their interests are represented in Brussels. Scores of trade associations have offices there, ranging from the International Federation of Industrial Energy Consumers, to the Liaison Committee of European Bicycle Manufacturers, to the International Confederation of European Beet Growers, to the Union of European Railway Industries. Many individual corporations also have representative offices.

And there are professional lobbyists, people who are paid to advocate a specific course of action to legislators and EU officials. Some 10,000 lobbyists are now offering their services in Brussels, and even business training schools are offering courses in how to influence decision-making in the Union.

Although lobbying is a well-established practice around the world, it is still a worry to some parliamentarians, who fear it will bend the democratic process. Caroline Lucas, a British member of the European Parliament, says: "There is enormous imbalance between [the scale of] corporate lobbying on the one hand and what you might call the lobbying on behalf of public service concerns, NGOs, environmental concerns, and so on. And that massive disproportion has very significant effects."

Lucas, a Green Party member, recounts that when she was on a panel preparing a report on aviation and the environment, she was approached by more than 50 trade and industry representatives. These ranged from parcel deliverers to engine manufacturers, whose desire was to ensure there would be no extra costs for aviation. But Lucas said she alone pondered the broader issues, such as the fact that in an age of global warming, aviation is the fastest growing source of polluting gases. No environmental lobbyists approached her while the report was being prepared.

Industry, of course, has a different perspective. John Bromley of the British Construction Federation takes the view that effective lobbying helps produce laws efficiently. He wants changes that will improve the effectiveness of lobbying on the legislative process. He points out that a key piece of legislation, relating to the letting of public contracts, is now stuck in a European Parliament committee with 500 amendments under consideration -- a situation he calls "absurd."

And, returning to the theme of vibration in buildings, Bromley says that the building industry has for five years been working to help finalize a new European law governing vibration stresses in the building code. He said his federation believed a deal had been reached with the EU authorities, until lobbyists for opposing groups stepped in.

Bromley describes what happened next: "It went to the parliament, and all the text and all the amendments we had put through and agreed with the [European] Commission were all thrown out, and we are now back in position-one again, and the process has come to a stop."

Both Lucas and Bromley believe the harassed parliamentarians are in fact too easily accessible to lobbyists, which results in confusion among the deputies and thus too many amendments to bills.

Bromley says, "What is really needed is an impartial civil service [for the European Parliament], an impartial civil service like all governments have, which would be able to say well, [this or] that amendment is just ridiculous."

Lucas suggests a radical reform of EU structures so as to transform the present European Commission -- the EU's executive arm -- into a civil service serving the European Parliament, the only really democratic body among the Union's major institutions.

But regardless of whether there are too many lobbyists in Brussels, more are on the way. United Business Institutes (UBI), a Brussels-based business school, offers degree courses that include lobbying strategy and how to represent the interests of U.S. and EU companies. UBI's dean, Francois Daniton, defends the concept of lobbying as one that "should exist" because it enables "everybody to have a voice."

One of UBI's lobbying students is Marie-Laurente Demouselle, a Belgian, who says: "It's not up-to-date anymore to consider that lobbying is only the benchmarking thing, you know, that you treat somebody to a restaurant [meal] and you get inside information, off the record. That is, I would say, an outdated view." Nowadays, Demouselle says, the rules of lobbying are "written down."