Lobbyists wield too much power in Berlin | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 25.06.2013
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Lobbyists wield too much power in Berlin

Party donations, corruption among parliamentarians, on the side earnings: lobbyists have too much clout in Germany, undermining democracy, according to a report by the organization LobbyControl.

Coming up with examples of lobbyism in Germany is easy. There are deputy ministers leaving a job in the chancellery for a job in the automotive sector, parliamentarians who are also on the board of business associations and getting paid for being there, or political parties who only take on small, individual donations so they don't have to reveal who is behind them.

Around 5,000 to 6,000 lobbyists are based in Berlin. There is no reliable data on which groups wield influence exactly where, or how much money is involved. That's why organizations like Transparency International and LobbyControl have been campaigning for the mandatory registration of lobbying activities.

"We do have a voluntary list of associations here in Germany, but it's from the 1970s and hopelessly outdated," says Ulrich Müller. He is on the board of LobbyControl, which is a not-for-profit organization funded by donations and member fees.

No clear rules

The lack of a lobbyists' register is just one of the problems LobbyControl has identified in Germany. It's very critical of the current governing coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats: Müller says that during their time in office they have done nothing to curb lobbying activities.

The authors present the 2013 Lobby Report on 25.06.2013 in Berlin. From left: Christina Deckwirth, Ulrich Müller Deckwirth and Timo Lange (Photo: Hannibal/dpa)

The authors of the 2013 Lobby Report say the German government has done little to increase transparency

"For us, it's not just about individual cases and affairs, it's also about general guidelines that would regulate relations between politicians and lobbyists," Müller says. "Unfortunately, the current government too often gives carte blanche to lobbyists and doesn't do enough for transparency and democracy."

In its 2013 report on political lobbying, the organization complains that, all too often, the balance of interests no longer favors the common good. The pluralistic ideal of a balanced representation of interests, where both sides are equal and the best argument ultimately prevails, has turned out to be an illusion. The report argues that democracy is in danger of becoming a meaningless facade that looks democratic on the outside, but is dominated by elite groups on the inside.

Years of procrastination

LobbyControl does, however, concede that the inertia is not just fault of the government of the past four years. The Grand Coalition of Social and Christian Democrats that preceded it did nothing to curb the activities of lobbyists, either.

There was some progress when the Social Democrats governed in coalition with the Greens from 1998 to 2005: "They kick-started some reforms and also signed the UN convention against parliamentary corruption," says Timo Lange, co-author of the report.

Peer Steinbrueck of the German Social Democratic party SPD leaves after a statement to the media in Berlin October 30, 2012. (REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz)

A minor reform was introduced after revelations about Peer Steinbrück's additional earnings

Back then, though, the coalition didn't manage to implement the convention before the elections in which the Grand Coalition, led by current Chancellor Angela Merkel, came to power. To this day, Germany and Japan are the only G20 countries that have not incorporated the convention into national law.

However, Lange points out that many of the problems to do with lobbyism today actually originated with the Social Democrats and Greens: for example, the fact that politicians can easily move straight on to a job in a company or with a lobbying group. The most prominent example of this is probably the former Social Democratic chancellor Gerhard Schröder's move to the Russian energy giant Gazprom.

Conflicts of interest

LobbyControl is demanding that top political figures should be subject to a period of restriction on leaving office. This is the norm in the United States - and not only there: it already applies to German civil servants. For between three and five years after they leave public service, they are not allowed to take on any work that could "prejudice the interests of their service." Put simply: without this rule, officials could be tempted to allow their decisions in office to be influenced by their future career prospects.

Christina Deckwirth, the co-author of the lobbying report, sees clear parallels with the case of Eckart von Klaeden. Currently a junior minister in the Chancellery, at the end of the year von Klaeden will become Daimler's new chief lobbyist.

Staatsminister im Bundeskanzleramt, Eckart von Klaeden, und Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel (eingestellt von pg)

Minister Eckart von Klaeden will be going straight from Angela Merkel's government to a job at Daimler

"Even if he denies it, as junior minister, von Klaeden did and still does participate in decisions that are significant for a global concern like Daimler," says Deckwirth. "It's simply absurd to say there could be no conflict of interest in this case." She points out that, for a company like Daimler, other political spheres are also of interest, even if they do not carry the label "automobile": from labor market and trade policy to tax legislation and reducing bureaucracy.

LobbyControl's report does, however, note one small item of progress with regard to the issue of additional income. After years in which there was hardly any change, it writes, the public debate over the additional earnings of the SPD's chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück led to a reform of the rules.

However, LobbyControl is not entirely satisfied with the government's decision, under which additional earnings must be disclosed in ten incremental bands. The 2013 Lobby Report's verdict is that the new rules are very far from constituting total transparency.

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