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

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