The lobbying industry in Brussels is big and plays a major role in the legislative process. However is this good and healthy for democracy?
As the European Union has developed and enlarged, its power and influence has increased compared to the member states. Across the 27 EU countries Brussels accounts for almost 70% of the laws and regulations that affect people and businesses. It’s against this backdrop that the lobbying industry has developed. Now, after a string of controversies new rules are coming in which will help make the dark art more accountable.
Lobbying is influencing legislation, typically in reducing regulation and compliance costs in highly regulated sectors like finance, engineering or utilities. Many large companies, NGOs and trade associations either have dedicated public affairs people, or outosurce lobbying to consultancies active in Brussels and member states. After the 2004 ascensions, the industry exploded as more businesses and their stakeholders came under the auspices of EU law, resulting in over 15,000 registered lobbyists working in Brussels, with over 2000 special interest groups now active. Campaign group Corporate Europe estimate over €1 billion is spent on lobbying each year in Brussels. Is this healthy for a democracy?
The answer is complex as the lobbying industry is diverse, with only 1/3 of registered lobbyists from so called ‘big business’. Consultancies, NGO’s, charities, think tanks make up the rest. Those in lobbying are obviously very protective of the industry, with one Brussels based lobbyist saying ‘’we bring bring specific sector expertise that civil servants don’t have, which makes good policy’’. He also said ‘’in our sector at least, we only go for minor policy changes, which make out members more competitive, which is good for Europe’’. There is no doubt lobbying can do good things- some of the more bizarre, ill thought (square bananas anyone?) and pointless regulations have been lifted because of lobbying efforts, and constant lobbying by various NGOs in Brussels helped the EU become the world leader on human rights, foreign aid and climate change.
A healthy lobbying industry can be good for a democracy if regulated properly, but the EU’s fragmented legislative structure and lack of regulation makes Brussels lobbying un-transparent and at risk from corruption. A lobbying group can schmooze and buy influence with Commission reps, national government delegations to the Council, or directly influence an MEP in a working committee. With lobbyists going down these avenues, it could allow ‘big business’ to muddy each legislative step in their favour.
To counter this, the Commission announced in May it will publish a register of all lobby groups in Brussels. The register is voluntary, but passes into EU buildings will only be granted to those on the list. There is also voluntary code of practice for the industry, but these steps are not enough. This was shown plainly in March when four MEPs were secretly taped by a newspaper offering to amend legislation for cash, and the fact several former senior Commissioners and officials go in to lobbying months after finishing working for the EU proves there needs to be tougher rules. After a series of corruption scandals in the US, the American government introduced tough regulations, such as making consultancies name clients and publish how much they’re being paid. They also banned lobbyists from taking government officials and legislators out for meals (a Brussels favourite) and banned legislators from receiving gifts or hospitality without approval from the House ethics committee. These rules need to be adopted in the EU, as do others. The EU should be bold and make lobbyists publish their meeting minutes as well as limiting access to decision makers outside Parliament.
After the bribery scandal, and the perception of a ‘revolving door’ at the Commission there needs to be more than what there is currently. Lobbying can work, and can play an effective role in the process of law making, especially at EU level which physically can’t monitor all the impacts of its laws on 350 million people and millions of businesses. However, like all other aspects of government, it needs to be seen to be as transparent as possible.