Participants on the April 2015 EU Lobbyland tour of Brussels pose for the camera in front of the iconic European Commission building. Photo: Corporate Observatory Europe.
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Exposing the secrets of the EU's corporate Lobbyland
David Lundy & Olivier Hoedeman, Corporate Europe Observatory
28th April 2015
Brussels is a city of ruthless, well-resourced corporate lobbyists. And unlike ordinary EU citizens, they enjoy priviliged access to officials, negotiators and parliamentarians, and are used to getting their own way. That's a state of affairs that David Lundy & Olivier Hoedeman are determined to end with their 'citizens tours' of EU Lobbyland ...
The voluntary approach to lobby regulation is clearly not working. Big business interests are not only able to exert excessive power over the policy agenda but are then also able to hide this influence from the public domain.
From the Schuman roundabout to Place du Luxembourg, corporate lobbies have colonized large parts of the European district of the Belgian capital.
Typically, the only trace of their presence are the discreet plaques affixed to the foot of the façades.
Estimates of the number of lobbyists in Brussels range from 20 to 30 thousand people working the corridors of EU policy-making - the vast majority of whom are acting for business associations and corporations.
The biggest focal point of lobbying efforts right now is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a proposed EU-US trade deal that covers a wide range of policy areas from chemicals regulations to employment policy, data protection to agriculture.
This last policy area has been the subject of the bulk of business lobby efforts since the talks on TTIP began. While TTIP's promotion of an intensive industrial model of food and farming threatens a wide array of food, environmental, and public health standards, it will mean big profits for large scale agribusiness.
Corporate farming knows from experience that free trade agreements have always helped maximise profits and turned farm workers and livestock into expendable commodities. TTIP is thus a major opportunity for big agriculture and its allies.
With the 9th round of talks between EU and US negotiators under way, Corporate Observatory Europe has been taking citizens, farmers and activists on tours of Brussels' EU quarter to explore how the agribusiness sector wields its influence, and to highlight the issues on which these companies are seeking to use their privileged access and clout.
Brussels - a lobbyist's dreamland
We generally start our tours in the centre of 'Rond Point' Schuman where you can see the headquarters of two of the three main EU institutions - the iconic Berlaymont building, which houses the European Commission and the rather less familiar European Council premises.
The area is surrounded by office buildings housing business federations, national embassies, think tanks, consultancies, PR agencies and law firms. Looking out over Place Schuman, the US Chamber of Commerce is one of the richest US lobby groups and is among the top groups lobbying for TTIP.
They coordinate their efforts closely with Business Europe, the European confederation of employers' organizations. The two were the key instigators of proposals for "regulatory cooperation" in TTIP.
Regulatory cooperation will aim to dismantle existing regulatory barriers to trade and prevent new ones from emerging. The model being proposed brings business groups to the table with regulators, essentially to co-draft legislation.
Public interest or environmental regulations would thus have to go through lengthy procedures, including vetting by business for possible impacts on trade.
Chemical industry hard at work defending bee-killing insecticides
Just on the edge of the Parc Cinquantenaire, two minutes from Place Schuman, stands the Brussels base of BASF, the largest chemicals producer in the world.
BASF is a major player in pesticides and has most recently been targeting the EU's temporary ban on toxic insecticides known as neonicotinoids, in the context of the TTIP negotiations, with calls for the transatlantic harmonisation of standards.
Neonicotinoids are a relatively new type of insecticide used in the last 20 years to control a variety of pests. They have become a matter of increasing concern to beekeepers and bee researchers in recent years, given the evidence showing a connection to current bee population decline.
BASF is also working through lobby federations such as CEFIC (European Chemical Industry Council) and ECPA (European Crop Protection Association - the pesticides sector) to kill off initiatives that could protect us from chemicals such as Endocrine Disruptors (EDCs).
These chemicals can interfere with the human hormonal system. They were deemed a "global threat" in a report from the World Health Organisation and the UN Environment Programme, but remain minimally unregulated in spite of the very low concentrations at which many have significant biological effects.
TTIP and the 'free trade' agenda
Further down Rue de la Loi, behind the green glass of the Charlemagne building, stands DG Trade - the Directorate General of the Commission in charge of EU trade relations with the rest of the world, which includes the TTIP talks led by Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström.
CEO's information on who lobbied DG Trade shows that, during the preparatory phase of the TTIP talks, there were over 130 meetings behind closed doors. At least 119 (more than 90%) of these were with corporations and the respective lobby groups.
No one had as many lobby encounters with DG Trade as the agribusiness lobby, which recorded more contacts with DG Trade than all those from the pharmaceutical, chemical, financial, and automobile industries together.
We also have evidence that DG Trade was actively pursuing some of the corporate lobby groups, inviting them to meetings and requesting their input. Such privileged access was not granted to others.
Not far from the Charlemagne building, further down Rue de la Loi stands the less shiny, more brutalist façade of DG Agriculture - the branch of the Commission responsible for EU policy on farming and rural development.
On a recent tour this month with farmers groups highlighting the International Day of Farmer and Peasant Struggle, we managed to enter the building and set out our demands to the EU's head TTIP negotiator on agriculture issues - John Clarke.
When he came down to meet the farmers' representatives, we called for the TTIP negotiations to be suspended and highlighted the impacts for farmers. The farmers stressed the problems associated with the TTIP talks include the push for more farming industrialisation, the access to the talks that is enjoyed by agribusiness and big landowners, and the threat posed to the survival of small family farms.
Mr. Clarke repeated the Commission's line that "food standards will not be lowered in the EU" and that he did not want to see farmers' livelihoods jeopardised. But DG Trade clearly said last year that, in agriculture, as in other sectors, there will be "winners and losers".
Mainstream farmer association COPA-COGECA have their offices on Rue de Trèves. This body's advocacy work tends to benefit, mostly an elite, the top 1% of big farmers, rather than the majority who stand to lose out from TTIP.
The lobbyists lobby group: SEAP
Heading west towards the European Parliament we enter a rapidly changing part of the city. Steadily over the past decade, as the European Parliament gained power in the EU legislative process, the surrounding area, especially between Place du Luxembourg and Square de Meeus, has become a prime stomping ground for major corporate lobbyists.
In the middle of Parliament's complex of office buildings stands a tree planted in 2001 as a symbol of commercial lobbying in Brussels. It was put there by the Society of European Affairs Professionals (SEAP), as you can see on the memorial stone celebrating the role of lobbying in EU policy-making.
This spot has become the focus of actions by activists, who see the tree's location as a symbol of privileged access and influence by corporate lobbyists in the EU. SEAP has become one of the leading voices that oppose improved transparency around lobbying activities, and it has worked intensively to ensure the current lobby transparency register remains voluntary.
But the voluntary approach to lobby regulation is clearly not working. Big business interests are not only able to exert excessive power over the policy agenda but are then also able to hide this influence from the public domain.
Privileged access for the corporate giants
The TTIP negotiations have so far been largely driven by corporate lobby groups who have been granted privileged access to the talks.
If Commissioner Malmström continues to be allowed to negotiate on behalf of big business, this will have negative impacts on many areas of our lives from food safety to the health of our democracy more generally.
As new information about the dangers of TTIP emerges, the public outcry is heard across more and more countries. The Commission is coming under increased pressure for putting corporations in the driving seat.
At CEO, we will continue to monitor corporate lobbying from agribusiness on the TTIP negotiations. We hope that, if ever you find yourself in the EU district of Brussels, you'll keep an eye out for the small plaques on the building façades, as so much of the power of corporate lobbyists lies in their anonymity.
Olivier Hoedeman is the CEO of Corporate Europe Observatory, and David Lundy is its Media Outreach Coordinator.
Corporate Europe Observatory is a Brussels-based non-profit research and campaign group which seeks to expose and challenge corporate lobbying on EU policy making.
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