Earlier this year, a former Member of the European Parliament (MEP), Ernst Strasser, was given a four-year jail sentence for accepting a bribe from a pair of lobbyists (in reality, two undercover journalists working for The Times) in return for making amendments to EU law. Three other MEPs implicated in the scandal were eventually cleared of wrongdoing by the European Anti-fraud Office (OLAF), though one had already resigned.
In response to this affair (dubbed the “cash for amendments” scandal) the European Parliament brought in a stricter Code of Conduct for MEPs, requiring them to declare any payments they receive, as well as any potential conflicts of interests. In addition, a new “Transparency Register” was set up, and it currently lists the activities and sources of funding of 5870 organisations in Brussels.
However, critics argue that the Code of Conduct is not sufficiently enforced and that signing-up to the Transparency Register is still voluntary. So, are rules around lobbying tough enough in Brussels? And how exactly does lobbying affect how European laws are made?
Many of our readers are extremely cynical on this front. Andy, for example, sent us the following comment:
Politicians often come from the view (via lobbying) of what business wants (i.e. to make money) rather than what society actually needs (i.e. empowerment towards a more enriched life).
To get a reaction, we put Andy’s comment to Thierry Philipponnat when we interviewed him earlier this year. Philipponnat is Secretary General of Finance Watch, an organisation was set up in 2011 to “act as a public interest counterweight to the powerful financial lobby“. How would he respond to Andy?
Unfortunately, what Andy says is often the case. It’s important to understand that what’s in the public interest is not merely a sum of all private interests; the public interest is more than that. Private interests will always try to defend themselves, and it’s normal and not necessarily a bad thing, but policy-makers should also have the broader public interest in mind when they are deciding policy.
Another cynical comment came from Paul, who feared the situation was getting worse:
I think we’re moving into a world where large corporations and very wealthy individuals – e.g. fund managers and private equity investors – seem to have more and more control over the political agenda.
Are things as bad as Paul suggests? What is the impact of lobbying on the democratic process?
Well, it depends a bit on the specific country setting; the intensity of lobbying varies from place to place. Globally, however, what Paul says is very close to reality. The interests at stake are enormous, and a lot of money is spent on trying to influence the legislative agenda… This can be anything from the financing of a re-election campaign through to guaranteeing a future career plan (the so-called “revolving door” from politics into business).
Clearly, the intensity of lobbying that is going on in Brussels is very high, but in other parts of the world the situation is even worse. Being elected a Senator in the US costs, on average, ten million dollars, whereas being elected an MEP costs perhaps tens of thousands of euros, and political parties can often take care of that cost themselves.
But is lobbying necessarily a bad thing? We had a comment from Nikolai pointing out that, as long as lobbying is done transparently, it should perhaps be considered part of the democratic process:
One man’s lobbying is another man’s advocacy, depending upon the level of transparency involved.
How would Philipponnat respond?
I agree with Nikolai, lobbying is not necessarily bad. It is natural to expect that people and organisations will want to plead for their interests. However, first of all, it has to be balanced; policy-makers have to hear both sides of the argument. And, of course, the process needs to be transparent and not secretive. If it’s balanced and transparent, then we don’t necessarily have a problem.