Germany has one of the most opaque lobbying systems in the industrialized world, according to LobbyControl. Ben Knight joined the NGO's tour of Berlin's government quarter to find out how lobbyists gain their influence.
Arms makers make sure that export controls on weapons aren't too strict, car manufacturers are keen on keeping official emissions tests nice and easy, and breweries team up with TV networks to explain why alcohol advertising shouldn't be banned.
This is the way of modern politics, and, though one could call it an amoral breach of democratic principles, it has become necessary for a functional democracy. "After all," said Sebastian Hennig, of the Berlin NGO LobbyControl, "politicians also depend on the expertise of companies to help them make decisions."
That's how Hennig, a former assistant to a member of the German parliament, carefully begins his tour of Berlin's "Lobby Planet," the government quarter where some 6,000 people are thought to be employed to represent the interests of businesses, entire industry sectors and occasionally - though with much lower budgets - civil rights groups. "Money is an important factor," Hennig said.
Germany, it turns out, has one of the least transparent lobbying systems in the industrialized world: There is no EU- or US-style "lobby register" to force private interests to disclose how and why they contact lawmakers - and how much money it costs.
And Germany also has a notorious revolving-door tradition. When major politicians bring their public service careers to an end, they have a habit of getting plum jobs at major corporations, and with eyebrow-raising speed: Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, for one example, quickly snagged a role as chairman of the board at the Nord Stream petrol pipeline, and it didn't take long for former Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung to find a place on the board of the defense giant Rheinmetall.
About 20 people sacrificed a sunny Saturday afternoon to march round with Hennig and learn, as one participant put it, what goes on in the expensively appointed offices that you might never otherwise think about. Some were activists or researchers with a professional interest, others were citizens who wanted to find out more about how their government works, and others were just tourists who'd already ticked off Berlin's sights.
On the way, Hennig told some unsettling stories. Here, for instance, was Il Punto, the expensive Italian restaurant where Network Media, a communications agency owned by the Social Democratic Party (SPD), sold meetings with senior politicians for up to 7,000 euros each last year. (After the public broadcaster ZDF exposed the practice in a TV documentary, Network Media put out a statement claiming that the encounters were not "sold" but "sponsored": One of the agency's jobs was to "try to find partners who will carry the expenses for these meetings.")
Other examples of lobbying are less corrupt in appearance, but still represent direct interventions. The tour stopped at the headquarters of the German Brewers' Federation (DBB), directly opposite the government's press office, where Hennig told the story of how, in 2009, the major brewers formed an alliance with sports federations and TV networks to lobby Consumer Rights Minister Ilse Aigner against restrictions on televised alcohol advertising.
The networks argued that a loss of revenue from beer advertising would have a negative impact on the quality of their TV shows. That same year, as it happens, the DBB also named Aigner its annual "ambassador for beer."
"That probably wasn't a coincidence," Hennig said.
Forms of influence
Lobbyists target the public, too. RWE, one of Germany's largest energy companies, supplies schoolbooks across the country that include exercises teaching eighth-graders to appreciate the benefits of having villages relocated to make way for new brown coal mines.
Similarly, the little-known Initiative New Social Market Economy, a think tank wholly funded by Gesamtmetall (aka the Federation of German Employers' Associations in the Metal and Electrical Engineering Industries), neglects to mention that it represents major companies when it mounts advertising campaigns to advocate for lower corporate taxes and a reduced minimum wage.
LobbyControl did not manage to convince everyone who took the tour. While the stories of political and corporate collusion were being reeled off, one elderly couple, who had been given the tour as a gift, voiced their discontent. "It's all so one-sided," said the man, who declined to be named. "They make it sound so negative. "Lobbying is just about spreading information - and what's wrong with spreading information? Lobbying isn't evil in itself. After all, it's the responsibility of the decision-makers, the politicians, to make up their minds."