Behind the scenes in Brussels: a world where lobbyists oil every decision
Companies invest millions ensuring their people have access to EU policymakers
Former Maltese health commissioner John Dalli: resigned last autumn, prompted by an Olaf investigation into his role in an alleged bribery scandal involving the tobacco industry. Photograph: Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images
Amid the swirl of emails that routinely file into the crowded inbox of a Brussels-based journalist, one in particular stood out. “We are pleased to invite you to the launch of the fifth edition of A Guide to Effective Lobbying in Europe. Kindly confirm your participation by 31st May,” it notes, before adding that EU commissioner Maros Sefcovic will deliver a keynote speech.
The invitation encapsulates the prevalence – and acceptability – of lobbying in Brussels. The image of slick businessmen with sharp suits and strong handshakes sliding through the corridors of power is not wide of the mark, as companies invest millions in ensuring their people have access to EU policymakers. As in Washington DC, lobbying in the Belgian capital is a formalised part of life.
For many, the prevalence of lobbying is a disturbing indication of the uncomfortable relationship between big business and politics. But others argue that lobbying is important for democracy. Article 11 of the European Union Treaty states that EU institutions should engage with stakeholders and all “parties concerned” when carrying out their activities. “The institutions shall, by appropriate means, give citizens and representative associations the opportunity to make known and publicly exchange their views in all areas of union action,” it states.
EU policymakers should have access to opinions when making decisions, the argument goes, particularly when enterprise and private sector activity are at stake.
This week one of the most serious EU corruption allegations in recent years reared its head again in Brussels, when the head of the anti-fraud office, Olaf, appeared before a European Parliament committee. The former Maltese health commissioner, John Dalli, resigned last autumn, a resignation prompted by an Olaf investigation into his role in an alleged bribery scandal involving the tobacco industry. Maltese businessman Silvio Zammit, a friend of Mr Dalli, was accused of soliciting a €60 million bribe from a Swedish maker of snus, a tobacco product banned in all EU countries except Sweden, in exchange for securing a change in EU policy on the legality of snus. The extent of Dalli’s knowledge of the alleged bribe has been the focus of the investigation. Dalli was in Brussels this week, meeting MEPs and journalists, to tell his side of the story. The European Commission and Olaf have also been forced to defend the handling of the resignation.
The affair has shed a light on the shadowy world of lobbying, but particularly the power of the tobacco lobby. The revelation last week in this newspaper that the Taoiseach met senior tobacco industry figures has raised uncomfortable questions for the Government, even as it swiftly moved to demonstrate its commitment to anti-smoking a few days later by announcing plain cigarette packaging. In Brussels, the tobacco industry is heavily represented, with up to 100 full-time lobbyists. But it is not just tobacco companies. Individual member states with large indigenous tobacco industries, such as Poland, are strongly resistant to more restrictive legislation.
While the Dalli affair has turned a spotlight on the tobacco lobby, focus will soon turn to the imminent reform of the EU’s transparency register. Close to 5,500 organisations are listed on the register, established in 2011. While transparency activists are strongly critical of its voluntary nature, the EU points out that most serious lobby groups must be on the register to qualify for meetings with MEPs. It also points to the difficulties in defining and quantifying lobbyists.
The commission defines lobbying as “all activities carried out with the objective of influencing the policy formulation and decision-making processes of the European institutions”.
Under this definition, lobbying is not confined to big business, but extends to other representative bodies such as NGOs, religious and social advocacy groups.
In a sphere where influencing policy is perceived as a democratic right, the primary focus in the upcoming reform of transparency rules is likely to be on bringing lobbyists out of the shadows rather than on tackling the existence of the multimillion euro activity.
This is a world where an EU commissioner attending the launch of a book on lobbying is not just perceived as appropriate, but is applauded.