Lobbyists = Evil-doers? E&M looks back at the evolution of the lobbying industry in Europe and talked to the brains behind documentary “The Brussels Business: Who runs the EU?” so as to understand the extent of influence from lobbying groups in European policy making

Many wince upon hearing the words “lobbying” or “lobbyist” in Europe; people seem to picture a lobbyist as an evil guy in a dark suit who comes from the rich elite, and who is outrageously overpaid to work for someone else’s interests.

In a way, that is what lobbyists are: groups of people with certain interests who pressure institutions to pass legislation, which in the end will largely benefit them. They do often wear suits, and they are likely to be educated elites. On the other hand, the world is too demonised: that “someone else’s interests” may involve passing gun-friendly laws, or it may involve sending humanitarian aid to Haiti.

The truth is, there are around 15,000 lobbyists in Brussels; who they are and what they do varies significantly. Ranging from the European Banking Federation to the Association of European Brewers, the nature of these many federations is not remotely the same.

The rise of lobbying in Europe

Can the EU hear the voices of normal Europeans, or is the EU too clogged up with lobbyists’ demands? | Photo: rockcohen, Licence: CC-BY-SA

The lobbying phenomenon boomed during the 90s, as a result of the transfer of power from member states to the European Union. In principle, it was supposed to be a win-win situation: interest groups get the opportunity to raise their concerns and advocate for their cause, while institutions get expert analysis and a potential legitimisation of the decisions they might end up taking anyway.

But as the lobbying industry grew, so did the need and the will to regulate it. In a speech in 2005, Administrative Affairs and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas launched an idea to strengthen ethical rules for policymakers that would later become today’s Transparency Initiative. This idea was implemented in 2008, through a register for which lobbyists can voluntarily sign up, and that obliges them to disclose their revenue and adopt a code of conduct.

Of course, the initiative had its controversies. Some complained that the depth of the financial disclosure was not enough, or that there was no auditing of the veracity of the claims each association made. But others also demanded equal application to different types of organisations. It is not only classic lobbies that are expected to participate; the register is equally applicable to NGOs and think tanks who emphasise independent research and the pursuit of public interest. At this point, all different types of interest groups became in some sense the circle of lobbying, which meant that for those who apply the “lobby=evil” logic, all Brussels business can be argued to be a part of evil.

It is perhaps the fact that the Transparency Initiative is at such an early stage, and the lack of differenciation between lobby groups, NGOs and think tanks, that affect the negative perception of Brussels’ most rapidly growing industry. Many organisations call themselves lobby groups and think tanks at the same time, seeking to represent the specific interests of their members while claiming to do independent research. And as the Economist’s prominent column Charlemagne’s Notebook pointed out back in 2009, there is another dodgy side to Brussels think tanks and their independence.

“In Brussels, to simplify, too many think tanks get too much of their money from the EU institutions to do research projects that lack real intellectual independence,” the column claimed.

Combining the unprecedentedly fast and entangled expansion of this business with the complex nature of the EU itself, it seems that confusion is inevitable.

Lobbyists are part of our democracy whether we like it or not.

Maybe the concept of lobbying or lobbyists is still too far away from you, the “normal European citizen.” And it is especially because the idea is so far beyond us that none of us wants to touch it or explain it. But you will talk about it, think about it, and discuss it when the topic is put on the silver screen. That’s why when Matthieu Lietaert and Freidrich Moser created a documentary with a twist of the thriller about it, it got Brussels and Europe talking.

Lobbying on screen: “The Brussels Business: who runs the EU?”

One evening, back in 2008, while Matthieu Lietaert was preparing for a lecture, he got an email from Friedrich Moser saying: “Hey! I’ve heard you’re doing a movie about lobbying. Let’s do it together.”

A few days later, after a 500-kilometre train ride, Moser and his assistant were in Lietaert’s kitchen, eating pasta and talking about the documentary The Brussels Business: Who runs the EU?.

Lietaert had great knowledge about lobbying – he did his doctoral thesis on lobbying in Brussels, and was interested in filmmaking; Moser – an accomplished filmmaker already – was learning about lobbying at the European Training Institute at the time.

“Fritz [Friedrich] managed to do stuff that I, as a researcher, was never able to do. As researchers we get facts, boring facts and that’s all we need. To make a film you need to get to a deeper level,” explains Lietaert.

The ‘conspiracy’ label was of course associated with the film because of its attempt to unveil the businesses that influence EU policy making.

“It’s not a conspiracy,” says Lietaert. He and Moser managed to get people from different backgrounds to explain the story: Olivier Hoedeman and Erik Wesselius from the Corporate Europe Observatory, and Pascal Kerneis who is “Mr Services – the person representing forty international companies and about forty national associations, all talking and working on services,” he adds.

For Moser it was important how he was going to tell the story. He knew that it had to have a linear structure. But for it to be interesting he also had to find a way of progressing in knowledge to create the full picture. The viewer had to learn gradually “what was going on behind the scenes in Brussels” and that’s why they chose to use a detective story.

“A detective discovers something that should not be there in the open,” he explained.

The two make it quite clear that the film isn’t anti-Europe or anti-lobbying but it’s for a more democratic Europe; it’s more of a political campaign. Lobbyists are part of our democracy whether we like it or not. The problem is the lack of a firm regulatory body in Brussels to make sure that lobby groups are performing their duties in European democracy. Compared to Washington, there is no clear set of rules in Europe. The registration which is currently on a voluntary basis should be made mandatory, as the lobbyists are ready to ‘shape debate’ with huge budgets – the annual budget spent on lobbying activities in Washington is 3.5 billion US dollars. In Brussels, we have no numbers because of the lack of transparency.

The two make it quite clear that the film isn’t anti-Europe or anti-lobbying but it’s for a more democratic Europe.

“The problem in Brussels is that the EU is also a union of democratic antithesis; the union itself with its institutions is not really democratic. It has a huge deficit because actually the European government is, if you look at it, the European Commission. Nobody of those is directly elected. This creates a problem of legitimacy, of responsibility, of accountability. Around this ‘unelected body’ that is so influential in creating legislation in Europe – 80% of which touches the direct life of every European citizen – we’ve got expert groups advising them how to make the policies,” Moser says.

But the problem isn’t so much of the existence of these expert groups. “What is not transparent is the way these expert groups are selected.”

Most of the quotes we used are included in a private video (Directors’ comments) courtesy of Matthieu Lietaert and Friedrich Moser.

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