/It’s just another day for lobbyists in paradise

It’s just another day for lobbyists in paradise

Members of the European parliament have meetings with lobbyists several times a week. 3000 lobbyists have access to the European Parliament at any time. Photo: Evelina Bergström
Members of the European parliament have meetings with lobbyists several times a week. 3000 lobbyists have access to the European Parliament at any time. Photo: Evelina Bergström

BRUSSELS | In front of a small tree, just a stone’s throw from the magnificent European Parliament building is Martin Pigeon adjusting the sound on his early model portable microphone. His French accent shines through when he starts speaking to his audience; “this tree was planted a couple of years ago by SEAP, the lobbyists of the lobbyists. What’s so funny is that the poor thing has not grown a single inch since then.” Pigeon works for Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO). The organization with few employees and low wages is working against what may be the most resourceful and influential powers of Europe. Lobbyism. The EU lobbyism’s annual turnover is over one billion euros. Just slightly more than the amount of money that the EU each year is spending on freedom, security and justice.

By Evelina Bergström

SEAPs lobbyist tree outside the European Parliament. Photo: Evelina Bergström
SEAPs lobbyist tree outside the European Parliament. Photo: Evelina Bergström

Lobbyism has as many connotations as Brussels has Bureaucrats. Generally it symbolizes the informal and casual discussions in the hotel lobby before and after formal meetings. The legend stretches back to the 19th century, when the US President Ulyssees S. Grant went for a whiskey and a cigar at the ancient Willard Hotel near the White House. However, the story is said to be a PR-­‐message created to wash away any bad associations of the word.

According to CEO, lobbyism is to seek influence on EU-­‐legislation and policymaking in return for payment. “We make a distinct difference between lobbyism and advocating. The latter is used by organisations wanting to affect a proposal for the sake of humanitarian and transparent interests, and not for the sake of money,” says Pigeon. Together with several politicians and networks, CEO criticise much lobbying for being non-­‐ transparent and lacking regulations in its current form.

EU legislation: signed, sealed and delivered by lobbyist firms

On the 7th floor of the parliament building, the Greens Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Christian Engstrom leans back behind his desk. “You have to take them with a grain of salt,” Engstrom says. In an hour, two lobbyists will visit him in his office. “They might turn round in the doorway. Cameras and press-­‐passes scare them away.”

The EU civil servants lacking internal expertise is mainly what creates the demand for fast, external knowledge. Progressive MEPs and Commissioners all say that they use lobbyists, or high-­‐level “experts”. Although not paid,

lobbyist are welcomed by the EU and sent to Brussels from big states and companies ”for free”.

However persuasion and knocking on the MEPs’ doors is not the most effective lobbyist tool. Professional opinion makers rather act as co-­‐creators of the EU agenda by trying to convey the same message through as many different channels as possible. And by hiring good firms -­‐ companies will be able to point out the direction of new laws.

Business interests over representation on politicians

“The prime target for lobbyists are the powerful commissioners, but since the EP powers have increased, to influencing parliamentarians has become much more important,” says MEP Engstrom.

There are more people employed in the corporate lobbyism sector of Brussels than in the EU institutions and approximately 20.000 lobbyists are working on the behalf of business interests. Some 4,000 lobbyists hold permanent access badges for the Parliament.

MEP Christian Engström. Photo: Evelina Bergström
MEP Christian Engström. Photo: Evelina Bergström

If you’ve got the money – fake an NGO

Square de Meeuûs houses some of Brussels most powerful lobbying firms. Pigeon points at the anonymous office buildings through the leafed branches and says; “Burston Marselle work for the interests of oil, weapons, and chemicals. You name it.”

One service provided is creating fake NGOs. With an office, some staff and a homepage, the “organization” then starts working, producing research materials, press releases and information – everything to provide the EU lawmakers with the wanted “external expertise”.

“When an NGO says something concerning industry interests – bells start ringing,” says Pigeon and gives an example of a fake NGO that was scrutinized and revealed by the Guardian. In 2006 the campaign Cancer United was pushing for equal access to cancer care across the EU. They produced research and information that was infiltrated to journalists and MEPs. However, the campaign was entirely funded by Roche. The maker of the two drugs Herceptin and Avastin.

Roche denied any conflict of interest, but all MEPs and commissioners concerning the issue withdrew from any involvement with Cancer United.

Taking after the US model

Together with CEO, Engstrom is a strong advocate for a mandatory and far reaching transparency register in the EU. Today the EU has a voluntary register used by a shy minority. In the US model anyone who wants to lobby the Congress has to register.

But what is the solution to the lack of internal expertise – how much possessed knowledge can you ask of the EU parliamentarians and commissioners in Brussels?

According to Pigeon it is time for the EU to drop temporary employment; “if you put resources on managing internal knowledge and keep people in office longer, you limit the need for external experts.”

Pigeon does not work completely without payment, but you can tell there is a gap in income between him and the shiny-­‐shoed politicians promenading beside him. Even though he is sometimes tired, he says he could never quit his job. He is too convinced. ”It only takes a small, small grain of sand to stop big and powerful machinery.”