Brussels is full of lobbyists. Every day 30,000 lobbyists try to influence 750 European parliamentarians, 28 commissioners and their staff. Corporations are spending billions on their public relations and lobbying activities. But for some time there has been concern about both the influence of lobbyists and their activities.
Now, a new campaign has been launched against what has been called "undemocratic" lobbying in the EU.
The aim is to reveal the "bitter truth" that influence has become "purchasable" and that the notion of equal opportunities is "all but a myth."
One individual who is standing up to resist what some see as an unhealthy development in the lobbying world is the European Parliamentarian Sven Giegold.
As rapporteur of a European parliamentary report, "Report on Transparency, Integrity and Accountability", the MEP is fighting to curb corruption and lobbying in Europe.
Sven Giegold versus 30,000 lobbyists. It seems a hopeless struggle but is it?
Maybe not, if the response to a recent online survey is anything to go by.
The survey asked citizens to submit their ideas for a "new and stronger" EU transparency law regarding lobbying.
Nearly 2,000 people all across Europe participated, with many expressing concerns about the activities of lobbyists in Brussels.
Giegold, a German Greens MEP, told Democracy International, the group behind the campaign, that he will try to include some of the responses of respondents in the legislation he is currently drafting.
In 2012, the Commission and Parliament introduced a register in order to better regulate the activities of the thousands of lobbyists operating in Brussels and Strasbourg.
A Commission source said, "Citizens can, and indeed should, expect the EU decision-making process to be as transparent and open as possible. The more open the process is, the easier it is to ensure balanced representation and avoid undue pressure and illegitimate or privileged access to information or to decision-makers. Transparency is also a key part of encouraging European citizens to participate more actively in the democratic life of the EU."
As the EU source said, since decisions taken by the EU affect millions of European citizens, they must be made as openly as possible. The EU institutions interact with a wide range of groups and organisations representing specific interests, and this is a legitimate and necessary part of the decision-making process to ensure that EU policies reflect citizens' real needs.
But, as the Commission spokesman pointed out, "the decision-making process must be transparent to allow for proper scrutiny and to ensure that the Union's institutions are accountable."
He added, "That is why the European Parliament and the European Commission are committed to being open about the groups and organisations with which they interact."
The transparency register – a voluntary register it must be stressed – was set up to answer core questions, such as what interests are being pursued, by whom and with what budgets.
As of 1 September, there were 8,225 registrants on the register, including 4,159 "in house" lobbyists and trade associations.
There were 1,229 NGOs listed, 964, professional consultants and 567 think tanks.
Despite efforts to track the activities of lobbyists, many EU lobbyists have simply refused to register, thus potentially undermining the whole system.
Indeed, a report released in September reveals the dramatic extent of the pharmaceutical industry's lobbying efforts towards EU decision-makers, with the industry spending an estimated 15 times more than civil society actors working on public health or access to medicines.
The report, 'Policy prescriptions: the firepower of the EU pharmaceutical lobby and implications for public health' by the Brussels-based Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) group, probes the "privileged" access to decision-making in Brussels enjoyed by the sector and facilitated by a lobby spend of around €40 million, extensive meetings with policy-makers and presence in advisory groups.
CEO says that "under-reporting and the continued avoidance" by some of the EU's voluntary lobby transparency system mean that overall industry spending may be much higher than the transparency register reveals.
The report claims to show that "Big Pharma" enjoys a "staggering" number of meetings with European Commission departments and officials.
For example, the influential EU pharmaceutical trade association “European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations” (EFPIA), had over 50 meetings with the Juncker Commission in its first four and a half months in office.
CEO researcher and author of the report, Rachel Tansey said, “The large-scale efforts of big pharmaceutical companies to mould EU policy to their own commercial benefit and their privileged access to EU decision-makers are deeply worrying. Strong measures are needed to avoid capture of EU health policy by Big Pharma, beginning with full transparency over industry lobbying and ending of privileged access."
The study examines some of Big Pharma’s channels of influence in the EU and exposes "concrete examples" of how EU law and policies have been "targeted or shaped" by the industry. These include rules around clinical trials’ data transparency, trade secrets and the negotiation of the EU-US trade deal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
A spokesman for Democracy International said that its campaign is designed to improve transparency in this area. It held a conference in the European Parliament on 3 September where several speakers spoke about the issue.
At the event, the EU was urged to incorporate international best practice, citing the example of Canada whose lobby transparency register is NINE times bigger than the EU equivalent.
The Democracy International spokesman said, "We have proven that together we can be successful. In the last few weeks, the Commission gave in to pressure from civil society and introduced some improvements. For example, senior officials are now banned from meeting with lobbyists. But this regulation only applies to 300 people – not even 1% of all employees. That is not enough to put an end to uncontrolled influence of big business over our European politicians."
According to recent data, no less than 70 percent of EU citizens believe the institutions of the Union are corrupt. The European Commission’s first anti-corruption report puts the losses caused by bribery across Europe at €120 billion per year. It is to be assumed that “corrupt” is understood by citizens to mean non-transparent lobby influence.
However, there has been some progress, it should be stressed.
The Juncker commission started with a promise for more transparency and has already started to meet only registered lobbyists and publish their lobby meetings. The Commission and the European Parliament’s bureau have also together drafted two new Interinstitutional Agreements on a better Lobby Transparency Register and on Better Law Making.
The Parliament, in the meantime, plans an overhaul of its "Rules of Procedure," including how to deal with conflicts of interests and their sanctioning.
Peter Dawson, who has worked as a lobbyist in Brussels for several years, robustly defends his “profession” that is under fire, saying, "It is entirely right and proper that EU legislation should reflect the concerns of a cross section of society and that, essentially, is what we are trying to do in our work. There is nothing at all wrong in trying to help shape draft legislation – indeed, it is one means of ensuring that ill thought out laws are amended or dropped – and lobbyists merely strive to represent the interests of their clients in this regards."
He added, "Everything I do in my lobbying of officials and politicians is, quite rightly, registered and monitored. I would not have it any other way. Having said that, I do accept that there are some who still avoid registering, and you have to draw your own conclusions as to their motives for doing so. You will always get some bad apples but I would back the role of lobbyists to the hilt."
Giegold, the rapporteur for the report on greater transparency, is pressing the Commission for an EU law using "hard rules to give citizens new trust in our European democracy."
He hopes the outcome will mean more transparency, not just regarding lobbying, but also related to the EU institutions themselves and an intensive fight against corruption.
In a recent ranking of member states and European institutions by Transparency International, a watchdog group, the EU institutions were said to be relatively transparent. Although the group adds that more than half of the entries on the EU's lobbying disclosure register are "inaccurate, incomplete or meaningless."
“A few simple plausibility checks reveal that data which lobbyists voluntarily file with the lobby register is inaccurate, incomplete or outright meaningless,” said Daniel Freund from Transparency International. “Among the hundreds of useless declarations we found organizations claiming to spend more than €100 million on EU lobbying or having tens of thousands of lobbyists at their disposal.”
With over two thirds of EU citizens saying the EU is corrupt, there is clearly much still to be done. As Sven Giegold says, "The time for progress is now."
By Martin Banks