As debate rages in Germany about politicians' corporate salaries, a green group has accused the German car industry of subverting environmental laws by having prominent politicians on their payrolls.
Links between politicians and industry are coming under scrutiny
While lobbying to influence governmental policy is standard practice the world over, there is mounting concern in Germany that it may be adversely affecting politicians’ freedom to make the right decisions.
This week German environmental group "Deutsche Umwelthilfe" released a statement charging the German automobile industry with what it calls “predator lobbyism” -- attacking and killing new regulatory laws from the inside before they have a chance to take effect.
It said that with prominent politicians on the payroll of large automotive companies, stricter laws enforcing better emissions filters and lower horsepower motors have no chance in German parliament.
Companies meddling in parliamentary process?
One way of doing this, said Jürgen Resch of Deutsche Umwelthife, was through politician's pocketbooks.
"There is a list of up to 100 persons in different parliaments, on several levels, on state level, on regional level, being paid by carmaker Volkswagen," Resch said. "For example the mayor of Wolfsburg, the city where Volkswagen is situated, gets a salary by this company."
VW manufacturing factory in Wolfsburg
Volkswagen has also had its hand in watering down recent legislation for higher environmental standards proposed by the Green Party, which would have required fine particle dust filters in diesel motors.
All it took, Resch said, was a letter from Volkswagen head Bernd Pischetsrieder to members of parliament.
"In this letter Pischetsrieder complained that tax incentives for particle filters would harm his company and the car industry in Germany and would be bad for the economy," Resch said. "With this letter he (Pischetsrieder) was able to stop the entire parliamentary process."
A lobbyist in disguise?
Deutsche Umwelthilfe's allegations against German companies come at a time of intense debate in the country about whether politicians should be allowed to hold down a normal job while carrying out their duties as an elected member of parliament or whether that would inevitably lead to a conflict of interests and turn parliamentarians into mere lobbyist for industry.
Under German law, parliamentarians are indeed allowed to work "on the side" as long as they do not earn more than €3,000 a month or €18,000 a year on top of their salaries as a member of parliament.
But the system's critics claim that such a practice could easily give rise to a conflict of interest.
"The parliamentarian must not be a lobbyist in disguise," Jochen Bäumel of Transparency International told news agency AFP. "Only by publishing their additional income can the electorate know whose interests they really represent."
Companies under pressure
Spearheaded by mass-selling daily Bild, the campaign to publish fat-cat corporate salaries has put pressure on German companies to reveal details of their links with politicians.
Volkswagen has already announced that it plans to release a list of employees on its books who also hold a political office. VW CEO Pischetsrieder is expected to announce the details on Thursday. Bild reported this week that VW had six Social Democratic parliamentarians on its payrolls over the last six years.
The issue has already caused heads to roll in the conservative opposition Christian Democratic Party (CDU). Secretary general of the party, Laurenz Meyer stepped down last month after it emerged that he had received substantial payouts from energy giant RWE, his former employer, while holding political office.
Harmful for economy too
However, Deutsche Umwelthilfe claims that the dilution of climate-friendly laws through the nexus of politicians and car industry officials is not only harmful to the German environment, but may hurt the economy in the long run as well.
Countries like China and Japan have lowered the ceilings for acceptable fuel consumption in automobiles, and even the US has stricter emissions standards than Germany. Many German luxury cars do not meet the new guidelines. Jürgen Resch warns that “made in Germany” may lose its selling power abroad.
“Earlier German cars stood for high quality, for security, and for a while, even for high environmental standards," Resch said. "But, we're now noticing that even in the United States, more and more cars are not being able to sell, because the emissions are too high. We see a big danger if the very high priced cars in Germany can’t be sold in the whole Asian market anymore because of environmental regulations."
Tighter regulations needed
The Opel Astra diesel hybrid concept vehicle is shown during media previews at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Jan. 9, 2005.
Instead of hyping faster motors and new state-of-art fuel pumps, Deutsche Umwelthilfe says that the German automobile industry need more incentive to focus on the development of alternatives to traditional engines, like environmentally-friendly hybrid models and more energy-efficient diesel motors.
It has proposed tighter regulations similar to those being implemented in Japan and China within the next few years. Whether these will put German cars on the fast track in Asia remains to be seen.