In front of the the European Parliament, there is a small square with a lot of little bars and coffee houses called ‚Place du Luxembourg‘. Every workday, it is busy with people who work in the European institutions and the many offices in the vicinity of the Parliament. You can sit there in a coffee house and watch them pass by. It would not be surprising to find, here and there, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and his assistant sitting at a table with a business(wo)man or the representative of a NGO, talking over a file of documents, while having a coffee and a piece of cake.
This is what lobbying looks like in Brussels. Every day, MEPs, their assistants or officials from the EU institutions meet with stakeholders such as representatives of businesses, associations, NGOs, law firms and others and talk about their law and policy proposals. Transparency International defines it as „any direct or indirect communication with public officials, political decision-makers or representatives for the purposes of influencing public decision-making, and carried out by or on behalf of any organised group“. It takes place in coffee houses at Place du Luxembourg, over emails, over telephone or in the many offices in Brussels.
No law without lobbyists
Lobbying has a rather bad reputation. We often associate it with bribery, corruption, big businesses imposing their interests on politicians to the detriment of civil society or secret bargains behind closed doors. The recent controversies around the two transatlantic free trade agreements, CETA and TTIP, have illustrated this very well. NGOs have repeatedly raised the concern that big corporations had a disproportionate influence on the text of these agreements and might gain more influence once they are ratified (Read for instance articles here and here). And this is just one example to show how despite many efforts that have been invested in making the policy-making and law-making process in the EU more transparent, there is still a lot of fog around the lobby in Brussels.
Lobbying is however indispensable. The law-makers in the EU, ranging from the assistant of a MEP or a desk officer in the Commission up to a Commissioner or a rapporteur in the European Parliament, cannot invent the laws all by themselves. They need the advice and input of stakeholders who can tell them how a new law would be feasible and what potential impact it would have. This is not something the law-makers can guess while sitting at their office.
Finding the right balance
The big challenge is to strike the right balance. I recently talked to an activist for transparency who proposed the following image: Imagine you are a politician and you have to decide on the allocation and use of a piece of land. Sitting at your desk in Brussels, you obviously cannot know what the land looks like or what the different stakeholders and their interests. This is why you have to consult different people. A representative of the farmers will tell you that you should make this piece of land available for new crops. A representative of industrials, by contrast, will claim the land for the construction of a new plant. A representative of civil society, in turn, demands the land to be turned into a national park. What do you do? It is evident that you will not be able to satisfy all demands. But provided that you have listened to the different parties, you should try to find a compromise that gives in to one of the stakeholders without being too much to the detriment of the others.
It is not acceptable, however, to listen to only one of the parties. This is where constructive criticism of lobbying in Brussels usually starts. All stakeholders should have the right to have a say. Therefore, politicians are responsible for listening to all parties. And it is not sufficient to listen to those who come with their claims and suggestions. The law-makers should also seek and approach those who are affected but who were not aware of the new law or lack the capacities to get involved by themselves. It would be unfair and perhaps even dangerous if big corporations were overrepresented in the EU law-making.
Making lobbying more transparent
Several initiatives have already been launched in order to make lobbying more transparent and politicians more accountable like this. The Transparency Register, for instance, was launched by the Parliament and the Commission in order to list all lobbyists in Brussels. All lobbyists who want to have access to either the Parliament or the Commission have to register and publish their name, the clients they represent, their fields of interests, their resources and others. Moreover, they have to sign up to a code of conduct and commit to not trying to exert undue influence (e.g. bribery or corruption). Someone who breaches with the code of conduct could be expelled from the transparency register and refused access to the institutions.
Furthermore, several NGOs are also active to ensure transparency in the EU lobbying scene. Corporate Europe Observatory, for instance, reports about politicians who have switched from the public to the private sector (so-called ‚revolving doors‘) and criticise the influence of big corporations in various fields. Transparency International has launched a website called ‚EU Integrity Watch‚ where you can check who lobbies whom in the EU, how much MEPs earn, who the biggest lobby groups are, and others.
The way to go
Transparency and accountability are far from being optimal in the EU. The Council of the European Union, in which Member States are represented, remains a black box. It is, for instance, not included in the Transparency Register. This is problematic because the final decisions on new laws are taken there and in some areas the Parliament is not even involved in the decision. Moreover, it is still very difficult to find a trace of the influence of lobbyists. Some MEPs publish documents and proposals they receive from lobbyists, as for example on the website LobbyCloud. They do so however on a vonluntary basis. Finally, transparency international has recently published a report that shows that many politicians still easily switch from the public to the private sector.
A lot of progress can still be done. In an ideal scenario, citizens and stakeholders would be able to trace the origin of new laws. It should be clear who was involved in the law-making process and who proposed what changes. This could be registered in a so-called ‚legislative footprint‘, a public document showing exactly who made what proposals with regards to a piece of law. And finally, there has to be an enforceable code of conducts that prevents politicians from exposing themselves to undue influence. It seems that the laws in place are still too lenient on those politicians and law-makers that submit themselves unilaterally to the influence of some selected players such as big corporations. Only effective sanctions can prevent corruption and bribery to have an impact on the law-making.
(I am obviously not naming all improvements that could be done. So if you have further suggestions or criticism, feel free to comment below :-))