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Germany

Critics of lobby system call for greater transparency

Before big political decisions are taken in Berlin, a number of stakeholders jostle to have their voices heard. But there is concern over the influence that lobbyists aim to exert over the people's representatives.

A man putting an evelope containing money into his suit

Critics say that politicians' incomes should be fully documented

All over the government district in Berlin, special interest organizations and public relations agencies have their own offices.

Since Germany's government moved from Bonn to Berlin, the swarm of lobbyists has grown significantly, offering invitations for representatives to attend debating forums and parliamentary evenings. And, critics say, some of the invitations are a little more lucrative.

The Bundestag

There are some 5,000 lobbyists, compared with 622 lower house members

Opponents of the lobby system claim that the power of the lobbyists is too great and that its connections with the government are no longer transparent.

Supporters argue that this is an exaggeration and that lobbying is a normal part of democracy.

When Uwe Schummer, a member of Germany's lower house of parliament, boots up the computer at his Berlin office, he already knows what will be in his electronic inbox - emails from lobbyists and interest groups.

These organizations campaign - with varying degrees of subtlety - for policies that are, first and foremost, in the interests of their clients. Schummer receives at least 80 of these emails each day.

"If you go to your home constituency for several days then there could be four or five hundred emails when you get back," Schummer told Deutsche Welle. "And there could be a pile of letters, invitations and commentaries that is a meter high. The first thing that I tend to do is to throw about 80 percent of it away."

Christian Democrat Schummer worked for the former social affairs minister Norbert Bluem and he claims to have seen personally how pressure groups can exert their influence on policy.

Most powerful lobby?

According to Schummer, representatives of the pharmaceutical industry, doctors and pharmacists carry the greatest influence in the corridors of power and are supported by certain parts of the press.

Schummer said that he remembers sensationalist commentary in the past: Questions posed in the popular press such as "Do we have to die earlier Herr Bluem?" and "Is there to be no more funding for research against cancer."

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder at Gazprom headquarters

Former chancellor Schroeder was criticized for his links with Gazprom

"What is being exploited here is people's primal fear that not everything is being done for their health anymore," said Schummer. "As a result, the health lobby here in Berlin is the toughest."

However, lobbying takes place across a range of issues and it is estimated that there are some 5,000 lobbyists, compared to 622 representatives in parliament.

Despite this, there is still no register of lobbyists, as called for by anti-corruption groups. For Schummer, there is only one way to behave accordingly - to make sure that all of his dealings are transparent. As one of only a small number of so-called "glass deputies" he puts his full tax return, with all forms of income, online.

"I believe that transparency is the natural opponent of all economic dependency," said Schummer.

"Whoever has voted for me as their representative must be able to assess, 'Are there outside activities?' I believe that everybody should be able to see the full picture."

A question of accountability

Having no additional activities makes Schummer something of an exception.

Many representatives keep themselves busy with extra duties such as lecture tours and advisory roles with companies. Organizations will happily pay five-figure sums each year for their bridge to the world of politics.

Since 2007, the additional activities - paid and voluntary - of members of the German parliament are published on the website of the German parliament. It is a development that many representatives fought in court, without success.

A variety of pills

Schummer claims that the health lobby is particularly strong

However, anti-corruption groups complain that MPs only have to indicate how significant the amount is by category - specifically up to 1,000 euros ($1,360), up to 3,500 euros, up to 7,500 euros, and above.

Critics say they also want full transparency of the type recommended by Schummer so that it becomes apparent who has paid a representative and the precise value of the sum.

Call for waiting period

They also want a three-year waiting period for individuals leaving political office to be able to move to the world of business.

The demand follows examples of politicians moving to business - most prominently former chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder's appointment to the supervisory body of a pipeline project in which the Russian gas company Gazprom was the main investor.

Critics say that may have influenced government policy, an accusation that Schroeder has denied.

"It left a bad aftertaste," said Schummer. "A qualification period would be sensible and helpful."

Author: Doris Krannich (rc)
Editor: Rob Turner

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