Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Artistic protest against industry lobby power in EU quarter

On 2nd February, in the middle of the afternoon, an unusual demonstration took place in Brussels. Organised by a collective of Brussels-based citizens and activists aiming to tackle corporate lobbying power with an artistic take, it took the form of a guided tour focusing on the EU Quarter's corporate lobbying hotspots.

A bike transformed into a mobile anti-lobbying paintings gallery

Starting from Rond-Point Schuman, home to the European Council, Commission and BP headquarters, the visit stopped in front of the offices of many of the big names on the Brussels corporate lobbying scene: the thinks-tanks Friends of Europe and the Security and Defence Agenda, chemical and pharma giant Bayer, the European Banking Federation... The burning issue of corporate dominance in the Commission's expert groups was mentioned in the entrance to the Borschette Centre, and the little tree planted in 2001 by SEAP (one of the commercial lobbyists' professional associations in Brussels) right outside the Parliament was also paid a visit to highlight the current lack of transparency in EU lobbying practices (the tree itself is not doing very well it seems). Carrying paintings, flyers, stickers and all the visually creative material designed for the occasion, the participants sang a special “lobbyist song” at each stop, with lyrics set to the chords of an old French pop classic, “L'opportuniste” by Jacques Dutronc.

Singing in front of the European Training Institute, the Brussels lobbyists' school

When the 60 participants in the tour reached their final destination, the Place du Luxembourg, a samba band and more people were waiting for them. A theatrical protest action had been prepared: two industry lobbyists quietly sipping a beer in an Irish pub were suddenly removed from their seats and on the spot were put on mock trial; the sentence was to have them covered with tar and feathers immediately, and... the sentence was executed!

The two guys were afterwards carried around on a beam, and the protesters tried to deliver them to the European Parliament (but the police refused to let them in). Good humour, a strong message to EU authorities to halt the scandal of corporate influence over EU policies... and a reminder that vigilante justice is better staged than experienced :)

The (currently without a name) collective of citizens plans to organise similar activities throughout the year, hoping to bring more visibility to the dominance of industry lobbyists in the EU quarter. This could make the corporate lobbying problem much more well-known among Brussels citizens: a very welcome development!


Wednesday, 28 October 2009

BusinessEurope's conference inside Commission's building blocked

Under the slogan 'Our Climate, not your business' a group of climate activists blocked BusinessEurope's conference in the Charlemagne building of the European Commission for one and a half hours. Police used pepper spray on protesters blocking the revolving doors, even though the police had already gained access to the building and arrested 24 activists before letting corporate lobbyists and other attendees in.

“I can understand that some more concerned citizens get angry when they see the positions taken by BusinessEurope,” said MEP Claude Turmes to the European Voice. EU institutions were convinced by BusinessEurope and other corporate lobby groups to seriously water down their climate package last year and are now letting their negotiating position for Copenhagen be influenced by them.

It was the second time BusinessEurope was given free use of a Commission building for a conference - a privilege not provided for other groups or environmental NGOs or trade unions. It is a typical example of the privileged access that the Commission gives to big business groups harming the democratic quality of its decision making.

The European Commission should once and for all stop this undemocratic practice of putting its premises at BusinessEurope's disposal anytime.


Thursday, 8 October 2009

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) Summit in the Brussels bubble – “Getting it right for Copenhagen”

On 6 October, Forum Europe and the Norway-based Bellona Foundation brought together a room packed with industry players together in luxury hotel in the Brussels EU quarter to talk about EU funding possibilities for CCS and how to make CCS accepted by the public.

A growing range of critics consider carbon capture and storage (CCS) to be an unproven, expensive and dangerous technology based on the idea that CO2 from coal-fired power plants – or other large emitters such as steel works – could be captured and stored underground. Leakages of stored CO2 cannot be excluded, which would have deadly consequences. According to the most ambitious predictions CCS won't be operational early enough to contribute to EU's 2020 goals for CO2 reduction.

The organisers of the 'summit' have a very pro-CCS position. CCS, says Paal Frisvold of the Brussels office of the Bellona Foundation, should ‘find a role in Copenhagen’, not only to clean up new coal plants emissions, but also those from other energy intensive industries like steel, cement and fertilisers. This vision is shared by co-organiser Forum Europe, previously one of the industry-funded think tanks based in Bibliothèque Solvay and run by Giles Merritt, but recently transformed into an event organising company.

CCS means big business, especially since the EU concluded its CCS directive last year and it was decided that that the income generated by of 300 million EU emission allowances will be invested in CCS. The directive says that also ‘innovative renewables’ can be financed with these allowances, but according to MEP Chris Davies, a staunch CCS champion, this clause was introduced just to ‘sell the package’ to some member states that do not have great stakes in coal.

Industry present at the conference complimented the European Commission and Parliament for “having come a long way” in supporting CCS, but demand more EU funding. Industry also wants CCS to be endorsed at the UN's climate summit in Copenhagen. Their goal is for CCS to become eligible for funding from the UN's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). But Chris Davies MEP from his side complained that a dinner with UK electricity producers a few days earlier proved that they were “grossly adverse to taking any risk”.

Gijs van Breda Vriesman of Shell, member of the European Technology Platform on CCS (a Commission initiative for allocating EU research funding), also known as the Zero Emissions Platform (ZEP), asked the Commission to come up with the money for the 300 million allowances ‘upfront’, which according to Shell would double their value.

One of the key points of critique however, is that CCS will simply be used to legitimise the building of new coal fired plants, which Davies said to oppose. Jan Panek of DG TREN, speaking on behalf of Commissioner Piebalgs, made it clear that coal, “Europe’s indigenous energy resource”, will stay an important energy source for the time to come. Another critique is that pumping huge amounts of money into CCS will divert investments away from renewables like solar energy. Shell announced last March to scale back its renewable energy business for example.

One of the major issues discussed was how to create public acceptance of this technology; the term ‘acceptance’ itself became a focus. It was agreed that it was a ‘difficult sell’ to people, especially to those whowill be the first generation to actually live above CO2-storage sites. This is reflected in strong local resistance against a CCS project near Rotterdam in the Netherlands, for example. It was also agreed that the oil industry itself was not the right actor to organise the ‘public consultations’ that are seen as necessary. Luc de Marliave of oil giant Total explained how the company has hired a consultancy to organise the consultations for their pilot project in Southern France, and set up a ‘scientific advisory committee’ to ‘assist Total in science developments for the CCS project’.

A ‘basic rule’ adhered to by Total, said De Marliave, is ‘asymmetric decision making’: “All participants in the public dialogue do not take part in decision making; but all participants in decision making do take part in the dialogue”.

Sanjeev Kumar of WWF, the only invited NGO to speak, said that industry would ‘shoot itself in the foot’ if they would stage a ‘conflict between NGOs’, exploiting the different positions on CCS between WWF and Greenpeace (which opposes CCS). He warned that when dealing with grassroots groups, “If you get it wrong once, you will never be able to rectify it”.

Jan Panek (EC) proposed to speak of ‘public awareness’ rather than ‘acceptance’, as “we are not forcing something onto the public. They will easily understand the benefits of CCS”. This was echoed by the chair of the discussion Bellona Foundation, who said that CCS supporters should take an example in Napoleon: “He took the word ‘problem’ out of the dictionary and replaced it with ‘challenge’. Now we should abandon the term ‘public acceptance’ and talk about ‘public awareness’”. Leaves us to wonder: will CCS end up just as abandoned as the infamous frenchman?


Wednesday, 5 August 2009

DG Trade: No apologies for giving privileged access to business

During one of DG Trade's recent meetings with civil society, I raised CEO's concerns about the privileged access given to big business interests by the Commission when developing trade policy. The reply from Director General, David O'Sullivan, was surprisingly frank.

He admitted that while his door was open to NGOs and he had never refused a meeting with one, he had “indeed made efforts to have more contacts with business”. As a result, “industry walks through that door more often than others,” he said. “I do not apologise for that, this is the way it's going to be.” Because according to O'Sullivan, trade is about industry.

And once business has walked through the Commission's door? In a letter to CEO, dated 15 June, the Commission's Secretary General admitted that EU officials “test the state of play of the negotiations with relevant industry sectors”. This involves “sharing certain elements of information concerning the negotiations”, but of course only “in return of a commitment from the participants to respect the confidentiality of the information received”.

In short: DG Trade listens more to business than to public interest groups. It shares confidential information about ongoing trade negotiations with a select group of industry lobbyists – information that it regularly withholds from CEO and other public interest groups in replies to access to information requests. And DG Trade thinks that this is the way it should be and will continue to be.

Is that the case? Not if the Commission is serious about its own staff regulations, which state that officials must "refrain from any unauthorised disclosure of information received in the line of duty" unless it is already in the public domain. And not if it takes its standards for consultations seriously, according to which it should neither grant privileged access to particular groups nor listen to only one side of the argument.

European trade policy constitutes no exception to the general need for EU policies that reflect the wider interests of society and not just the agenda of big business. Because EU trade policy is as much about industry as it is about consumers, farmers, workers, the environment and development perspectives – in Europe and in the South.


Monday, 20 July 2009

The new European Parliament: too close to business?

Many key committees will for the next five years be headed by MEPs who have a record of close links with big business interests in decisions on environment and consumer rights. This highlights the need to improve the European Parliament’s current rules on corporate donations and links to commercial interests.

In an interview published by Euractiv, Jacques Lafitte from Brussels lobby consultancy Avisa predicts that the new European Parliament will be “more pro-business”, more “industry-friendly” and less green.

His assessment is echoed by other prominent figures from the world of public affairs. Georg Danell, managing partner in the Brussels office of public affairs firm Kreab Gavin Anderson, foresees a centre-right coalition on most business-related legislation between EPP, ALDE and ECR.

Julia Harrison, managing partner at Brussels public affairs consultancy Blueprint Partners, thinks that the centre-right majority of EPP, ALDE and ECR could make the new Parliament an easier playing field for companies and industry.

These predictions by prominent Brussels lobbyists were rather dramatically confirmed by the election of the chairs of the parliamentary committees last week. Many key committees will for the next five years be headed by MEPs who have a record of siding with big business interests in decisions on environment and consumer rights. Indeed, some of the newly elected committee chairs have previously been accused of conflicts of interest due to side-jobs or other close links with industry lobbies.

The internal market and consumer protection committee (IMCO) will be headed by UK Conservative MEP Malcolm Harbour. Over the past ten years, Harbour, a former car engineer, has been one of the closest allies of the car industry in the European Parliament. In return, car companies lent him luxurious new cars for ‘test-drives’ or invited him to grandprix racing events and other paid trips. Recently, he has advocated government support at national and European level, for the troubled car industry in the EU.

Some have called the new chair of the industry committee (ITRE), German Christian Democrat Herbert Reul, an industry lobbyist. According to FT Germany, Reul allegedly tabled amendments written by car and energy industry lobbyists when the Parliament was deciding on important climate-related issues. The paper also notes that two of Reul’s former assistants now work with energy firms RWE and EnBW: another indication of his close links with this industry.

The committee on economic and monetary affairs (ECON), responsible for regulating the financial sector, will be chaired by British MEP Sharon Bowles. Bowles was previously accused of having a conflict of interests after pushing for software patents while also being partner in a law firm run by her husband representing clients with a direct interest in software patent protection.

There has also been controversy over the newly-elected chair of the Legal Affairs Committee, Klaus Heiner Lehne. During the previousl administration, Lehne was one of the MEPs pushing strongly for software patents. At the same time he was a partner at Taylor Wessing, a law firm with a large patent department advising clients on patenting strategy in the software sector.

The fact that these four MEPs have now been elected to prestigious posts shows the need to improve the European Parliament’s current rules on corporate donations and links to commercial interests. The Spinwatch report Too Close to Comfort, which featured portraits of Harbour, Bowles and Lehne, makes some pragmatic suggestions:

  • MEPs should declare all financial interests, along with the value of those interests
  • MEPs should never receive money, gifts or hospitality over 50 Euros from industries associated with their work
  • MEPs should give up all outside commercial lobbying interests on entering the European Parliament
  • No MEP acting as a Rapporteur or drafting an Opinion should have a financial stake in an industry impacted by that Report or Opinion
  • Any shares owned by an MEP should be put in a blind or neutral trust for the time they serve as an MEP
  • The rules should be tightened on spouses and partners with financial interests that conflict with the parliamentary duties of an MEP


Wednesday, 20 May 2009

MEP-turned-lobbyist shuns voluntary register

A few weeks ago, in our ‘Inside the Brussels Bubble’ blog, we wondered how many of the MEPs not standing for re-election would go through the revolving door into new jobs as industry lobbyists.

Some high-profile MEPs went through the revolving doors to join Brussels lobby consultancy firms after the 2004 elections: Pat Cox (now with APCO as well as EU lobby advisor for Microsoft, Pfizer and other large firms), Elly Plooij van Gorsel (Blueprint Partners), former Labour MEP David Bowe (Gplus) and Rolf Linkohr, who after 25 years in the European Parliament set up his own lobby consultancy working for energy firms. None of these ex-MEPs feature in the Commission's lobby transparency register, because the Commission – astonishingly – does not ask for lobbyists’ names to be disclosed. One can only hope that the Commission remedies this blunder when the register is reviewed next month.

Lobby consultancy firms APCO, Blueprint Partners and Gplus have registered (although the information these firms disclose about their lobbying activities is very limited, but that’s another story). Rolf Linkohr’s ‘Centre for European Energy Strategy’ (CERES) is nowhere to be found in the register. CERES specialises in lobbying (advice) for large energy corporations, including the nuclear industry. Last week Corporate Europe Observatory contacted CERES to ask why they had not voluntarily registered. The CERES staff appeared unpleasantly surprised by our question. They eventually responded in writing, but refused to disclose the names of clients and said they would now look into what the register was about before they made any decision on joining.

CERES is located on the prestigious Avenue Tervuren, a few metro stops from the Commission headquarters. It is on the same floor as (and shares a doorbell with) the European Association of Coal and Lignite (Euracoal). Whether CERES is lobbying for Euracoal remains unclear, as Euracoal refused to answer this question. Nor are they to be found on the Commission’s register (but told CEO they intend to register). Euracoal provides the secretariat for two of its 26 members, the German associations DEBRIV and Deutscher Kohlenbergbau. Among DEBRIV's members is energy giant Vattenfall, which has Linkohr as a board member.

Linkohr, meanwhile, has managed to stay in business after he was fired as a Special Advisor to Energy Commissioner Piebalgs in early 2007. He lost this prestigious job after concerns were raised about conflict of interests due to his double role as a public policy advisor and a lobby consultant for large energy multinationals. The rumour goes that Linkohr, as a Special Advisor, had a major hand in drafting the Commission’s strategic guidelines on energy and that he was instrumental in making Commissioner Piebalgs shift towards a much more explicit pro-nuclear energy position.

Linkohr is a prolific speaker on EU energy policy issues at industry lobby conferences across Europe. The activities of his lobby consultancy firm CERES, however, remain shrouded in secrecy. This raises the question that if prominent former MEPs, who are now lobbyists, do not even feel any need to join the Commission’s register, how can Mr. Kallas expect his voluntary approach to work?


Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Documentary reveals car lobby perks for MEPs

An interesting documentary on Dutch television yesterday showed the massive influence of the car lobby in EU capital Brussels. The car lobby uses a range of different tactics, including some that come close to influence peddling. MEP Malcolm Harbour, who has a strong say in Parliamentary decision-making on environmental standards for cars, routinely borrows luxurious new cars for 'test-drives', accepts invitations to attend grandprix racing events and other treats courtesy of the car industry. For details, see also the entry about Malcolm Harbour on the MEPedia website. Mr. Harbour (a former car designer) claims he needs to understand the latest technology.

The documentary revealed that it is very common both for Commission officials and MEPs to buy cars at reduced rate. Every major car brand has a special 'diplomatic sales' branch in Brussels offering 20-25% discounts exclusively for MEPs and other EU officials. This has been going on for decades. Here's an example of FIAT's 'diplomatic sales' website:

The influence of the car lobby became very clear when Enterprise Commissioner Günter Verheugen, Ari Vatanen MEP (former rally driver), Malcolm Harbour MEP, and MEP Herman de Croo, who chairs the European Transport Safety Council were interviewed about car safety standards. Asked whether the car industry should be obliged to use the best available technology in order to reduce accidents and mortality rates, all of these influential players repeated the 'integrated approach' mantra promoted by the car lobbies.

To steer free from stricter car safety regulations, lobbyists have successfully convinced EU decision-makers that driving behaviour, trees next to roads and other infrastructure are as important factors. Important as they may be, these are matters which MEPs have no power over as they are controlled at member state level The result: preserving the status quo.