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.


Tuesday, 28 April 2009

EP elections ahead, how fast will the revolving door spin?

With the European Parliament elections now just five weeks away, the first election posters have started appearing in cities across Europe. As it becomes clear who will run for (re-)election, it also emerges who is stepping down from being an MEP. Many will return to national politics, retire or look for a new job. What will be really interesting to watch in the coming weeks and months is which of the current MEPs will go through the revolving door into new jobs as industry lobbyists.

After the previous Parliament elections in 2004, Elly Plooij van Gorsel, former vice-president of the European Parliament, became senior counsel at lobby firm Blueprint Partners, shortly after leaving the Parliament. Both UK Labour MEP David Bowe and UK Liberal Democrat MEP Nick Clegg joined the Brussels team of lobbying firm GPlus Europe (Mr. Clegg has since returned to UK politics). Pat Cox, former president of the European Parliament, joined public affairs giant APCO as well as the Brussels-based consultancy firm European Integration Solutions. Pat Cox is also an adviser to Microsoft, Pfizer and Michelin. German MEP Rolf Linkohr established the ‘Centre for European Energy Strategy' (CERES) a 'think tank' that specialises in lobbying advice for large energy corporations, including the nuclear industry.

These examples are probably just the tip of the iceberg; the EU lobby transparency register does not include names of lobbyists, let alone is there the obligation to disclose whether lobbyists are former public office holders (required in the US, which has mandatory lobby disclosure rules).

For MEPs elected in 2004, the revolving door in fact started spinning last year, when Finnish MEP Piia-Noora Kauppi became the head of the Finnish banking lobby. Kauppi benefited from the fact that there is no ‘cooling off’ period (nor any other rules) for MEPs going through the revolving door. She won an award for Worst Conflict of Interest in last year's Worst EU Lobby Awards as a result.

Earlier this year, the European Parliament's Secretary General Julian Priestley joined EPPA (European Public Policy Advisers), a Brussels-based public affairs consultancy. After more than a decade in the most powerful administrative function of the European Parliament, Priestly now leads EPPA which, among others, lobbies on behalf of chemical industry giants like Bayer CropScience, Cheminova and Syngenta. EPPA's offices are located in the Place du Luxembourg, less than 100 metres from the Parliament entrance.

Ingo Friedrich (German Christian Democrat MEP since 1979) is not a candidate for re-election, but will remain active in Brussels as a lobbyist. Friedrich will work for the European Economic Senate (EES), a hybrid group of politicians and German businesses. He will also lobby for the Taxpayers Association of Europe, a coalition that seems inspired by the Republican crusade against 'big government' in the US. TAE has links to the neoconservative Heritage Foundation and European Resource Bank, which helps develop US-style radical 'free-market' think tanks in Europe.

The European Parliament currently has no rules to prevent conflicts of interest around the revolving doors phenomena, unlike in the US where the members of the House of Representatives are banned from lobbying for two years after leaving the House. House and Senate staffers are banned for a year from lobbying their former employer.


Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Commission takes financial advice from "independent" bankers

Hero’s welcome for banking advisor’s "wise words"

Onno Ruding, a paid advisor to Citigroup and a member of President Barroso’s ‘committee of wise-men’ on financial supervision (known as the de Larosière group), presented the group's findings to a select audience this week at an event in Brussels.

The event took part at the Centre of European Policy Studies (CEPS), a Brussels-based corporate-funded think tank, whose Board of Directors is chaired by Ruding.

Ruding was joined on the panel by Alistair Sutton from the law firm White & Case as facilitator and high-level Commission official David Right (DG Internal Market) as co-speaker.

All three – as well as many lobbyists in the audience – underlined the ‘independence’ of the de Larosière group, which is astonishing given that four out of eight members of the group are closely linked to giant financial corporations, a fifth was the head of the UK Financial Services Authority that completely failed in its tasks and a sixth works for a company whose clients include major banks, as reported in ‘Would you bank on them’.

Ruding, insisted he was an independent voice, despite the fact that he is a paid member of Citigroup’s advisory board. Citigroup owns Citibank which is deeply involved into the crisis, on the verge of collapse and likely to be nationalised

Commission flies the flag for the de Larosière report

David Wright, the deputy director-general of DG Internal Market is mentioned in the de Larosière report as member of the group’s secretariat and indeed DG Internal Market has been working feverishly for weeks to help finalise the report. Nevertheless, a disclaimer on the report explicitly states that it expresses the view of the group’s members. Does that mean that the role of the Commission’s secretariat was to work under the orders of the bankers in the de Larosière group, to act as their secretaries?

The Commission was very quick to ‘broadly endorse’ the report just after it appeared. Apparently, having typed it the Commission didn’t need much time to think about its content. Now, it is also giving it the highest status. Wright claimed that the EU is the first international actor to have a specific agenda on the necessary reform of the financial markets and this is the de Larosière report.

At the same time, the Commission seems to be in no hurry to implement the report’s recommendations. The original ambition of the group was to contribute to the Commission’s preparations for the EU Spring Summit in March. Now, Wright says the proposals will be submitted to the Council ‘before May 2009’. Some ‘important leaders’ are supposed to have already ‘commented positively’ on the de Larosière report but finance ministers are expected to discuss it thoroughly. A public hearing will take place somewhere in April.

Ruding sticks to his de-regulation legacy?

Ruding felt the need to emphasise from the beginning that the mission of the group was not to call for more regulation and supervision. He accepted that some stricter rules may be needed but on the other hand he warned against over-regulation, just as he has done for the last 30 years. With the financial sector hanging over the edge of the cliff and threatening to drag the rest of the economy with it after a decade of frantic deregulation, Ruding finds it coherent to warn against ‘going to the other extreme, the one of overregulation’.

‘What we need is better regulation and supervision’ says Ruding. The main regulatory measures proposed by the de Larosière group are to be implemented by the European Central Bank, without changing its current non transparent status and in general without questioning the fundamentals of financial self-regulation.

While the world is suffering from the deepest economic crisis in 70 years, caused by gross under-regulation of the financial sector, it is clearly business as usual in the Brussels bubble…

Bankers or academics?

Meanwhile, the European Commission has updated its register of expert groups so it now includes the de Larosière group. Remarkably, the register entry refers to all eight members as ‘academics’, when most of them are not linked with any university. It is interesting to see that in the register entry the Commission has BNP-Paribas as the ‘body represented’ by Mr de Larosière and Grupo CMID for Mr Fernandez. It should perhaps explain how their ‘academic’ status is compatible with representing these corporations in this high level group.

This is typical of the Commission’s new approach - corporate advisors do not have any conflict of interest because they are there in a ‘personal capacity’.