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Too much lobbying

Christoph Hasselbach, Brussels / mllSeptember 5, 2012

The organization Lobbycontrol is lobbying for more control on lobbying in the European Union. It's produced a new guide to the city, pointing out where undercover lobbyists hide.

painted footprints on the sidewalk in Brussels showing the way to the EU
Image: DW/R. Bosen

Policy in Europe is increasingly being made in Brussels, rather than in the individual states. One way of measuring the development is to look at the number of lobbyists in Brussels. According to Graham Watson, a British Liberal Member of the European Parliament (MEP), "If you look at the number of lobbyists we have here in Brussels - more lobbyists than we have in Washington - they recognize the powers that are wielded here, and we've got to do something to make sure that our citizens understand this as well."

The official figures are almost ten years old. Even then, there were already between 15,000 and 30,000 lobbyists in the corridors of the EU. There are almost certainly more now. Nobody knows exactly: there is a lobbyists' register, but registration is voluntary.

Nina Katzemich of Lobbycontrol says that has to change. She wants to see more transparency and control of the situation. She's not opposed to lobbyists, but she does think the balance needs to be restored.

"The lobbyists here in Brussels always talk about a market of interests in which everyone can promote their own interests," she told DW. "But that's not how it is. Especially in Brussels, it's the lobbyists with the biggest budgets who have the best chance of getting their views heard."

As a result, she argues, the big business lobby groups are much better represented than organizations working for the public good.

Lobbies are most effective under cover

Nina Katzemich and her colleague Timo Lange have invited members of the press on a tour of the European district in Brussels to show how and where the lobbies work. They both say the lobbies are most effective when they don't look like lobbies. Neutral-sounding think-tanks may well turn out to be disguised lobby organizations, financed by specific companies. The way influence may be applied on members of the European Parliament can also be complex and indirect.

The Berlaymont, home of the Commission
The lobbyists know their way around the EU buildingsImage: picture alliance / Arco Images GmbH

But it certainly works. Timo Lange points to the failure of a plan by the European Commission to introduce a traffic-light-style color-coding for food products.

"The food industry mobilized a billion euros to stop the traffic light for food," he says. And right now, with the financial crisis, the banks and their lobbyists are working hard to prevent tougher control of their business.

From commission to consultancy

Lobbycontrol is particularly critical of the conflict of interest that arises when recent commissioners promptly move into the business world.

"Five of the 13 commissioners in the last commission have lucrative jobs in private business," notes Katzemich. Well-financed lobbyists can thus gain "a direct view into the EU bureaucracy, insider information, and direct contact with senior positions in the EU bureaucracy."

Following massive criticism, the Commission has decided to extend the waiting time for former commissioners before they can go into business from one year to 18 months. Lobbycontrol would like to see three years - and would like to see the ban extended so that it does not only apply to the field in which the former commissioner was working.

A declared lobbyist

So how do the lobbyists themselves react to the accusations made against them? Andreas Ogrinz admits that he's a lobbyist for the German chemical industry employers' federation, but he sees lobbying as a legitimate way to represent interests.

The BASF plant in Ludwigshafen (AP Photo / Thomas Niedermueller)
The chemical industry can be sure its views are well representedImage: AP

He complains that critics are one-sided: "Environmental lobbyists are also lobbyists," he told DW. "That's sometimes lost sight of in the debate. It's not just industry or employers who have interests; it's also environmentalists or human rights organizations."

But Ogrinz agrees with Lobbycontrol that there's a need for transparency for lobbyists. And he does see moral limits to their work: "For example, if you invite an MEP for a trip or give him a present, that is clearly trying to win influence illegitimately. I don't see that as lobbying - that's corruption."

Ogrinz is probably the kind of lobbyist with whom Lobbycontrol has few problems. Its main target is undercover lobbying, and there the methods are becoming increasingly sophisticated. It needs an expert to be able to decipher the real meaning of the organization names on the doors of the office blocks in Brussels.