Corporate lobbyists first began migrating to Brussels after the signing of the Single European Act in 1986, sensing the rich pickings to be had from Europe’s neoliberal slide. Nearly two decades later there are over 15,000 lobbyists, 70 per cent representing corporate interests, operating in hundreds of lobbying consultancies, PR agencies and EU affairs offices in an industry which generates an estimated €90m every year. Yet unlike in the United States, there are still no binding requirements for EU lobbyists to disclose who they are lobbying for, what they are lobbying on, or how much they are being paid.
EU Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas’s surprise European Transparency Initiative, announced in March, raised the possibility of a mandatory injection of transparency into EU decision-making. 'Registers provided by lobbyists’ organisations in the EU are voluntary and incomprehensive and do not provide much information on the specific interests represented or how it is financed, he said. 'Self imposed codes of conduct have few signatories and have so far lacked serious sanctions.'
Unsurprisingly, Europe’s lobbying and public relations industry has other ideas. The European Public Affairs Consultancies’ Association (EPACA), the latest in a line of lobbyists' associations, designed to ward off regulation by promoting voluntary codes of conduct, has been busy persuading Kallas to stick with the voluntary approach. EPACA is made up of thirty of the major European lobbying and PR firms, including APCO Europe, Burson-Marsteller, Edelman, Grayling, Hill and Knowlton and Weber Shandwick Adamson. It claims – somewhat implausibly – that existing self-regulation is sufficient and hasn’t led to any problems.
In fact, the increasing use of deceptive lobbying tactics by corporate interests has led to a growing understanding among politicians and the public of the inadequacy of the voluntary approach. The latest example, concerning a group called the Campaign for Creativity (C4C), illustrates the need for compulsory disclosure of funding sources for all lobbyists.
The C4C was set up to lobby MEPs over the EU’s recent Software Patents Directive, and claims to represent 'artists, musicians, designers, engineers, software developers and anyone else whose livelihood depends on their creativity'. Visitors to the C4C website in advance of the vote in July were asked to email MEPs in support of software patents. 'Creativity, like a butterfly, is fragile and needs to be nurtured and protected,' the website said.
Despite the appearance of a grassroots campaign, C4C turned out to be the brainchild of London-based PR agency Campbell Gentry. It is run by consultant Simon Gentry, who was previously employed by SmithKline Beecham to lobby for biotech patents. Its supporters – listed discreetly on its English website but not the French or German versions – include software multinationals Microsoft and SAP, as well as industry association CompTIA. Gentry has refused to disclose how C4C is financed.
This kind of bogus lobby group is all too frequent in Brussels. The Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, for instance, run by Burson-Marsteller, is funded by the world’s four major bromine flame retardent producers, but rarely mentions this when opposing regulation relating to bromine flame retardents. As Daniel Guéguen, CEO of CLAN Public Affairs, said quite openly in a recent interview, lobbyists are likely 'to adopt ever tougher lobbying strategies and ever more sophisticated approaches to economic intelligence that will probably involve practices such as manipulation, destabilisation and disinformation.' Misleading lobbying methods, it seems, are an everyday part of the EU policy chain.
Nevertheless, hope for the European Transparency Initiative remains. Over 140 civil society groups, trade unions, academics and public affairs firms, perhaps emboldened by the French and Dutch rejection of Europe’s sham constitution, have launched the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) in support of the initiative. Calling for mandatory lobbying disclosure legislation, it envisages a fully searchable, sortable and downloadable online register of lobbying activities for organisations with budgets above a certain threshold. While this would not in itself prevent the worst excesses of corporate influence, ALTER-EU also calls for an improved code of conduct for Commission officials, and an end to systematic granting of privileged access to corporate lobbyists – it would help to ensure greater public scrutiny of EU decision-making. This is an essential first step in resisting the corporate stranglehold.