Emily O’Reilly is on the campaign trail. Her bid for re-election for a second term by MEPs as Europe’s Ombudsman later this month saw her speaking in Brussels on Monday at the Institute for International and European Affairs about her ongoing battles with the European institutions over transparency, and particularly Brussels’ 25,000-strong legion of lobbyists.
Her first term has seen a shift in her office’s main preoccupations with individual citizens’ complaints to a focus on raising accountability standards in the EU institutions, including a notorious clash with the EU Commission over the dubious appointment procedure for its now-ex secretary general Martin Selmayr.
If there was one reform she would like to see most, she said, it would be to end the “revolving door” practice whereby ex-officials and ex-commissioners end up within days of retiring as lobbyists for the very groups they had been regulating and legislating for.
Brussels lobbying is a €1.5 billion-a-year industry, says the NGO Corporate Europe Observatory (COE). More than 11,000 of the 25,000 lobbyists are registered as such. Corporate interests are willing to invest staggering amounts of money in influencing the legislative process here, whether the commission, MEPs, expert committees or the member-state embassies and the Council of Ministers.
A Transparency International league table of lobbyists puts the Chemical Industry Council at the top, with an annual spend of some €12 million, followed by Eurochambres, the representative body of chambers of commerce, at €7.6 million, and the lobbying firm Fleischman Hilliard on €6.7 million-plus.
Google and Microsoft are some way behind on a mere €4.25 million each.
Among the biggest campaigns in recent times have been the tobacco industry’s attempt to water down cigarette labelling legislation, and the publishing and digital industries’ battles on either side of the amendment of the copyright directive.
An article published on Tuesday by the COE's Vicky Cann provides a fascinating case study and insight into the negotiations surrounding the EU's single-use plastics directive, agreed this year, and the extent of contacts between lobbyists and Irish officials. It is based on a large cache of documents, secured through Freedom of Information by Examiner journalist Juno McEnroe and former MEP Lynn Boylan.
Cann notes how, despite the Government's broad support for the purposes of the legislation, the affected industry was repeatedly proactively consulted on the legislation and changes being made to it – not least Repak, the not-for-profit company, set up by business, which runs Ireland's packaging recycling scheme.
“Businesses’ interests, including those of the soft drinks and tobacco industries, were put forward by the Irish Government into the Council decision-making process,” she writes, noting the many offers to “run the following text . . . by you”.
Some of those industry concerns contributed directly to implementation delays by several years incorporated in the final rules, she argues.
It is inevitable – and not wrong – that interests, corporate and other, should be able to access those involved in the legislative process
These concerns included trying to exclude some products from the list of those to be banned; weakening the definition of what counts as “plastic” and the schemes aimed at ensuring “producers” take responsibility for plastic waste they create; demanding “flexibility” in how targets on the collection of plastic bottles for recycling are measured; opposing mandatory tethered caps on plastic bottles (these would prevent lids becoming separated and creating extra litter); and disputing the percentage of recycled plastic content to be included in certain products . . .
“The voice of the Irish tobacco sector,” she writes, was very active during the process on two issues: the inclusion of cigarette butts in an extended producer responsibility scheme (which would require the industry to pick up the full costs of cleaning up cigarette butts and to pay for public information), and vote by MEPs to introduce consumption reduction targets for cigarette butts.
NGOs were also active in lobbying on the issue, but “the documents show that they did not receive the silver-service treatment” that the industry received, Cann writes.
Lynn Boylan reflects on the unequal opportunities: “From this Freedom of Information documentation it is clear that some lobbyists are more equal than others, so while Ireland has relatively good transparency regarding lobbying, compared to the EU institutions, it does not necessarily mean that NGOs and business are treated in the same way. The chances of a minister sharing amendments with an NGO is highly unlikely in my opinion.”
An earlier COE report notes approvingly the readiness of the Irish Permanent Representation in Brussels – one of only four embassies here – to publish details of meetings with lobbyists. In the year to April 2018, the top two Irish officials here met 72 times with outside bodies, the majority of them industry/corporate representatives. Ibec had four meetings, Google three, and the Confederation of British Industry two.
It is inevitable – and not wrong – that interests, corporate and other, should be able to access those involved in the legislative process both with their expertise and to express their concerns. The public should, however, know who is doing what and if, and to what extent, government becomes their agent.