EU mask slips as study shows business lobbies dominate channel to influence Council

Ursula von der Leyen left without seat at signing event

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The European Parliament has launched a probe into Brussels spending on big consultancy firms. Senior MEPs are looking into the European Commission’s relationship with the so-called “Big Four” – PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and EY. The firms received more than £401million between 2016 and 2019. 

Eurocrats also spent multi-million euro deals with other firms, such as McKinsey and Accenture.

German MEP Monika Hohlmeier told Eurativ: “We are going to look into how much money is given to the ‘Big Four’, but also to big companies and big NGOs.”

Her powerful budgetary control committee is examining the Commission’s relationship with external contractors.

Splashing out on pricey contracts with external contractors has become common practice for the EU’s Brussels-based executive.

It is also not a secret that EU law-making is heavily influenced by these companies.

New research by Corporate Europe Observatory, a non-profit research and campaign group, shows how business lobbies dominate a channel to influence the European Council.

The report reads: “You may not have heard of the EU Council’s 150 working parties, but they play an important role in preparing the positions that member states take in the Council on proposed EU laws and policies.

“New research by Corporate Europe Observatory shows how a key working party on competitiveness and growth offers privileged access to corporate interests to present and discuss their demands.

“Business interests outnumber trade unions and NGOs 13 to one in terms of attendance at these meetings, while dissenting voices to the prevailing EU orthodoxy of ‘competitiveness’, ‘completing the single market’, ‘innovation’, and ‘better regulation’, are not invited.”

Behind closed doors, with little or no transparency about what is said and who is saying it, this secret lobby channel is surely prized by industry, the report added.

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This practice has continued over a number of years, likely extending long before the 30 months analysed in the study.

According to the non-profit group, this is facilitated by member state governments holding the Council presidency who issue the invitations, and overall must be seen in the context of a Council which is far too eager to do the bidding of big business.

Meanwhile the Council Secretariat seems unable to intervene.

A commitment in July 2019 to put in place guidelines on this issue has not been met.

The report added: “The activities and operations of Council working parties are under-scrutinised considering the key role they play in the development of Council positions on draft legislation and in setting the EU’s agenda.

“This reflects the secretive way in which they are allowed to operate: legislative documents are not routinely published, and there is no requirement to minute either the discussions or the positions articulated by member states. This opacity has been heavily criticised by the European Ombudsman, MEPs, and InvestigateEurope, while Corporate Europe Observatory has illustrated how these working parties are key targets for corporate lobbyists.

“On too many issues, member state ministers and officials act as ‘middle men’ for corporate interests.

“Industry lobby groups have far greater access to the Council’s Working Party on Competitiveness and Growth than any other type of external organisation, as this spreadsheet makes clear. With 52 out of a total of 80 external speakers Sidenote coming from a company, trade association, or consultancy, and only four from NGOs and trade unions, industry attendance outnumbered public interest groups 13:1 during the 30 months analysed.”

European Commissioners also meet mostly with lobbyists representing corporate interests.

According to data collected by the Integrity Watch website, 61.69 percent of the meetings European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s commissioners had with non-politicians were with corporate lobbyists.

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Out of 7,093 meetings between December 1, 2019 and April 2021, 4,376 were corporate.

Just over 26 percent were with NGOs, 5.5 percent were with think-tanks and 2.9 percent were with consultants.

One of the most recent meetings reported on the website was with Leonardo S.p.A., an Italian multinational company specialising in aerospace, defence and security, in February.

The discussion of the meeting was “a proposal to boost precision farming in the EU”.

Lobbyists have operated in Brussels for almost as long as the European institutions settled down there.

In 1965, several Dutch newspapers reported how “pressure groups” had descended in the unofficial European capital to influence officials working for the European Economic Community (EEC) – the precursor to the EU.

The journalists highlighted the smorgasbord of corporate interests represented by such groups: the faucet industry, the dry-cleaning sector, manufacturers of sewing machines and sparkling beverages producers.

They also reported that corporate interests and agriculture lobby groups had easier access to EEC officials than labour unions and consumer organisations.

Dutch journalist Peter Teffer argued that in the 56 years that have passed since those newspaper reports, not much has changed.

He wrote in a report for EUObserver last year: “Yes, the EU has transformed, growing from six member states to 28 (and now shrinking to 27) and affecting a much greater part of daily life than it did in those early days of the EEC.

“But it is still the case that corporate interests have a disproportionate influence on EU lawmaking.

“One explanation is that the interests of corporate lobbyists often align with the possible political majorities in the complex EU.

“For an EU directive or regulation to become law, lawmakers need to find multiple sets of compromises: between conservatives and progressives; between North and South; between East and West; between big and small member states.”

The EU’s internal market has proven to be the go-to foundation that allows for those compromises, he added.

Mr Teffer explained: “Because what is the one thing that all EU governments agree on?

“The importance of economic growth. Jobs. Capitalism.

“So, member states are able to agree on an internal market where trade barriers are removed for carmakers, giving them the ability to get their required certifications anywhere in the EU.

“But there is less consensus on how to protect the environment and human health, and to give up sovereignty in those fields.”

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