Brussels is aflame as lobbyists do their best to influence EU lawmakers to vote their way on controversial services legislation in mid-February.
Maneuvering has become more hectic as the vote on services nears
Evelyne Gebhardt sometimes feels overwhelmed by the amount of letters that piles up on her desk. Every day the Socialist European Parliament member (MEP) receives numerous requests regarding the draft services directive since Gebhardt is the rapporteur on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee (IMCO) who deals with the bill. The flood of mail comes from concerned people from the 25 EU countries making a last minute bid to influence the vote.
"Of course, I get many requests, e-mails, calls from those concerned, from lobbyists and people who are worried," Gebhardt said. "There are the organizations here in Brussels who are specialized in it. Then there are companies and individuals. I'm very attentive when these things arrive, since when concern is expressed, a politician has to listen. It's important for me because it makes it clear to me where problems could lie."
The legislation will allow EU businesses to offer their services throughout the bloc according to the laws of their home countries. Western European trade unions and consumer protection organizations say the current draft could result in lower standards replacing the hard-fought social and environmental ones established in the course of decades.
Catelene Passchier works for the European Trade Union Federation, where she's responsible for the services directive. She's one of the people who's in regular contact with Gebhardt.
The European Parliament will debate the issue later in the month
"We try to (exert) influence by going to members of parliament and speaking to them -- not only saying that what they do is wrong, but trying to argue with legal arguments and technical arguments and examples," she explained.
Passchier has been working on the directive for two years so far, but now the work has become particularly intensive. The upcoming vote is expected to determine the direction of all future negotiations on the legislation. Passchier is planning a huge demonstration for Feb. 14 in Strasbourg, the parliament's seat, and has been meeting with MEPs continually on the issue that the trade unions oppose. She says it's especially important that the contentious principle allowing company's to apply the legal conditions of their country of origin is discarded.
That's exactly what Carlos Almaraz of the European business organization UNICE wants kept intact. He says the legislation must become a reality and spends his days fighting for it.
"For the plenary meeting in February, we are about to adopt a letter that will be sent to all MEPs, and then we will soon start meetings with key MEPs," said Almaraz. "In the letter, we give our assessment about the IMCO vote, the things that were adopted, and that we would like the plenary to endorse and then all the things that were not covered by the IMCO vote."
UNICE has already had some success. It was convinced that the legislation should be applied to all fields, while its opponents wanted exceptions to be made. But the IMCO members voted not to restrict the directive to certain sectors, which Almaraz views as a personal success.
But Passchier is also confident since IMCO rapporteur Gebhardt already significantly limited the country of origin principle in her report. Now, the point is to convince the other MEPs.
Gebhardt wants lottery and gambling excluded, among other services
"We have continuous relations with some people in the parliament. We work closely together," Passchier said. "Of course, there are some parties we work with on a continuous basis, which is all the parties of the center and the left. But we also have good relations, and very important relations with, for instance, the Christian Democrats, who very often also have a trade union background or are related to trade unions with a Christian background. Trade unionists are not only Socialists."
Lobbyists also cultivate contacts among their own ilk, meeting regularly for working meals or conferences to exchange information. For Almaraz it's important to talk to specialists from the various fields to better understand their concerns, which he can later use to help him convince MEPs of UNICE's position. And there's still much work to be done.
"The commission has had an unusual position," Almaraz remarked. "It is striking to see that for such an important dossier they've decided not to interfere at all in the discussions until the first reading is over. We regret that that's the decision, but we have to live with it. And, of course, defending the legislation, which the commission would have done, is being filled by other organizations, like UNICE. Obviously we are using a lot of information from the commission and we feel sometimes as if we have drafted the directive, which is not the case." The result of Almaraz's and Passchier's work may become visible on Feb. 14, when the parliament once again debates the legislation.