In his written response to questions from MEPs, Commissioner-designate for trade, Karel de Gucht, pledged “independence” and “to counter third-party interests where these have undue influence”. He also said he would “listen and to seek the opinion of the widest range of stakeholders and experts”.
Will DG Trade finally get a commissioner that puts an end to the department's habit of granting big business privileged access and undue influence over its policies?
Unfortunately, one of de Gucht's first actions following his nomination suggests not. On 8 December, only days after his designation, he sat down with the President and Director General of BusinessEurope, Jürgen Thumann and Philippe de Buck. They discussed future transatlantic trade policy, on-going negotiations, access to raw materials and EU investment policy – issues that clearly fall outside de Gucht's current portfolio as development commissioner. Meetings with some of the other “stakeholders and experts” that he is so keen to listen to have not been reported and de Gucht's secretary could not give us any further information on this issue.
So, will de Gucht follow in the footsteps of his predecessors? Will he develop the announced new strategic trade policy 2010-2015 in exclusive co-operation with BusinessEurope and other corporate lobby groups following Peter Mandelson's example with the Global Europe strategy? Or will he keep his promise of a trade policy “in the interest of Europe as a whole and not just in part”?
There are two first steps the new trade commissioner could take to show that he seriously wants to counter the undue influence of vested interests.
First, he could bring his house in order as regards conflicts of interests. The case against the former trade Commissioner Mandelson, who personally signed the decision to lift tariffs for a giant company owned by his close friend Oleg Deripaska should not be swept under the carpet. The same goes for Fritz-Harald Wenig, the ex-official that was found guilty but faced no penalties for offering to leak commercially sensitive information in return for the promise of financial rewards. DG Trade's long tradition of revolving doors to the private sector must equally be challenged. Ex-officials should not walk in and out of the Charlemagne building to lobby their ex-colleagues on behalf of corporate consultancies such as GPlus or APCO.
Secondly, the future trade commissioner should put an end to all forms of privileged access for corporate lobbyists. There should not be innumerable meetings with BusinessEurope and the like on an issue while none are held with unions and NGOs. The Commission should not share details about on-going negotiations with a select group of industry representatives while withholding the same information from other interested parties. And the EU's market access teams should be overhauled. They grant big exporters an exclusive place in identifying and getting rid off whatever regulation stands in their way in more than 30 countries. But trade is not only about business. It is also about questions of public health, labour, development and the environment as DG Trade's own website rightly points out.
So, Mr. de Gucht, are you serious about countering “third-party interests where these have undue influence”? Do you really want to develop a trade policy “in the interest of Europe as a whole and not just in part”? And will you do that on the basis of consultations with the “widest range of stakeholders and experts”?
If that is really the case, then you should re-think your premature assessment of DG Trade's track record as “excellent” and pit yourself against the department's incestuous relationship with big business.