Caroline Lucas MEP (Greens, UK) challenged the Trade Commissioner designate Karel de Gucht on the issue of corporate influence over EU trade policy when he appeared before the European Parliament hearing yesterday (12 January 2010).
Lucas was happy with de Gucht's strong pledge for “independence” and for countering “third-party interests where these have undue influence” in his written answer to the Parliament's questions. But she was worried that he might follow in the footsteps of his predecessors. It was former trade Commissioner Mandelson who developed the EU's Global Europe trade strategy in close co-operation with corporate lobby groups like BusinessEurope. Thus Lucas wanted to know how de Gucht would resist the undue influence of particular interest groups in the revision of this strategy.
The question seems to have caught de Gucht on the wrong foot. He started his response with the following cryptic elaborations: “I think this is a matter of personal integrity before all, I mean, I have no problem that there is full transparency, who is meeting whom at the services level, there is also a register of lobbies, I mean it's a fact of life that there are a lot of lobbyists, it's because you are important that there are a lot of lobbies.” Then he pulled his act together and assured Lucas that he would meet “all stakeholders” on an “equal basis” to “be informed about what is really at stake in the negotiations”.
Interestingly enough, de Gucht did not do so while he was Belgian minister for foreign affairs and trade. At that time he established a permanent business council of 40 entrepreneurs and chief executives of multinationals active in Belgium to “garner structured advice”. Members included the then chief executive of ING bank Michel Tilmant, the chief executive of GDF Suez Energy International Dirk Beeuwsaert, Jean Stéphenne of consumer healthcare giant GlaxoSmithKline and Nestlé's chief executive Paul Bulcke. According to Lucas, de Gucht did not set up any similar body for public interest groups. So, she asked whether he would employ “a more balanced model of taking advice in developing trade policy”.
Again, the response was rather evasive: “I already mentioned earlier in the debate that the roles of a member state and the European Union and the Commission are quite different. The work of member states before all has to do with trade promotion and I established this business council to discuss with business how we could better promote their products in third countries.” But then de Gucht hastened to say that he “also consulted with civil society on a two times a year basis on the overall topics of foreign policy” and that he “always had an open door if they wanted to come to see me”. This would also be his approach as a trade commissioner.
Consultations with civil society on overall topics twice a year? Doors that are always open? That sounds familiar.
DG Trade already organises regular meetings on EU trade policy with civil society in the context of its Civil Society Dialogue. But while this initiative has been criticised by public interest groups as little more than a PR exercise, big business enjoys numerous other channels of influencing EU trade policy – from frequent and exclusive meetings with top officials in which sensitive information is shared to their institutionalised seats in the Commission's market access teams that tackle whatever regulation stands in the way of European exports to more than 30 countries.
DG Trade also praises itself for its open door policy towards civil society. However, not rejecting a meeting when a union or an NGO requests one is not enough to “reduce the risk of the policymakers just listening to one side of the argument”. And this is what the Commission's own standards for consultation require. Lets hope we do not have to wait for the next Commission until someone takes this seriously.