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Lobbying under the radar

In the aftermath of the Sunday Times' cash-for-amendments story, a working group of ten MEPs, led by European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek is looking to strengthen MEPs' code of conduct in an attempt to improve public faith in the institution. Just yesterday (23 May 2011), President Buzek told the parliament that: “Our aim is to see what can be done on the code of conduct for outside interests – how rules could be strengthened on certain aspects, for instance regarding access to the EP”.

Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) believes it is critical that this working group takes a look at an area of lobbying which is currently 'under the radar' of the parliamentary authorities and which is not subject to any regulation. Some 60-80 cross-party groups1 currently bring together groups of MEPs from different political groupings but with a common interest in a particular issue which they discuss with outside interests. French academic Didier Chabanet describes cross-party groups as "a blind spot in parliamentary life"2. Within these cross-party groups, a significant number are better described as MEP-industry forums as they specifically bring together MEPs with business representatives. Such forums offer huge opportunities for corporate lobbying, often under the guise of 'policy discussion' or 'political debate'. Activities organised by these forums include working breakfasts, lunch events, dinner debates, seminars for MEPs' assistants, cocktail events, and excursions (paid for by industry).

These groups may not be dissimilar, in practice, to Parliamentary intergroups which are officially recognised and subject to formal rules requiring the declaration of external financial support. There are currently 27 official intergroups, a number which is limited by the rules governing such groups which were developed in 1999. All other cross-party groups exist outside the official intergroup framework. After criticism from CEO and others, the parliament has recently improved the transparency around official intergroups.

Corporate Europe Observatory has identified at least 15 unregulated MEP-industry forums but there are likely to be more3. CEO believes that MEP-industry forums should be subject to the same rules as intergroups including around transparency of their financial support, and the evidence below sets out why.

• At least some MEP-industry forums are set-up, controlled by, or at least are heavily influenced by corporate lobbyists or consultants representing corporate interests. The Transatlantic Policy Network and the European Internet Foundation were both set up by Peter Linton, senior consultant at Burson-Marsteller4. A senior finance lobbyist, John Houston of Houston Associates, used to run the European Parliamentary Financial Services Forum5. The European Banking Federation has since taken over the coordination role. The Knowledge for Innovation forum was set up by Roland Strauss, a Brussels-based lobbyist, and it continues to be run by Strauss & Partners6.

• The majority of MEP-industry forums are financed by their corporate members and seeing as they are not official intergroups, rules which require declarations of financial interests do not apply to them. Our research shows, that while many MEP-industry forums have websites, they provide varying degrees of information on their funding, with some providing no information at all. The European Parliament website does not provide an overview of these groups.

• Some MEP-industry forums are blatant vehicles for lobbying. The Forum in the European Parliament for Construction openly states on its website that “With the ever-increasing development of EU policies affecting industry it is necessary for market participants to have contact with EU legislators in order to exchange views and influence the legislative process”7. The European Forum for Manufacturing sets out its priorities as including “EU policy and legislative agendas as they impact on manufacturing, its technologies markets, sectors, and stakeholders”8. The European Energy Forum has been called the “submarine of the energy industry” by an insider.

• Indeed, some MEPs have tabled specific legislative demands which mirror those articulated by corporate members of MEP-industry forums. In 2011, UK MEP Martin Callanan drafted an official Parliamentary response to Commission proposals on vehicle efficiency standards by recommending weaker limits. His stance replicated that of the European Automobile Manufacturers' Society which shares many members with the Forum for the Automobile and Society9. In 2005, MEP members of the European Parliamentary Financial Services Forum were found to have tabled amendments to water-down the 'Third Money Laundering Directive', amendments which were almost identical to drafts circulated by a banking trade group which shared many members of the EPFSF10. In 2004, German MEP Elmar Brok who was then chairman of the parliament's foreign affairs committee, appeared to have cut-and-pasted the main Transatlantic Policy Network demands into a draft European Parliament resolution which made recommendations for an upcoming EU-US summit11.

• Some MEP-industry forums could be mistaken for being official Parliamentary bodies. Rules for the official intergroups prevent them from using “either the name or the logo of the European Parliament nor any name which might lead to confusion with the official bodies of the European Parliament”. But as MEP-industry forums are not subject to these rules, the European Parliamentary Financial Services Forum, the European Parliament Ceramics Forum, the Forum in the European Parliament for Construction and the Knowledge 4 Information Forum of the European Parliament are all apparently able to invoke the name of the Parliament without sanction. One actually calls itself an intergroup (Land Use and Food Policy Intergroup), although it is not on the officially registered list of such groups! Presumably, this enhances the prestige of such groups, especially when recruiting corporate members.

NGOs, public interest groups, trade unions, consumers' groups are largely excluded from MEP-industry forums. Some forums, such as Rail Forum Europe only list corporate partners and MEPs as members12. Others such as the European Energy Forum say that it is important that “we shouldn't forget the consumers!” although they are not mentioned among the 79 associate members listed13. The European Forum for Manufacturing has many large corporate members; however, trade unions are only invited to events “where appropriate”14 .

• Some MEP-industry forums pro-actively look to facilitate close personal bonds between MEPs and industry. Indeed Rail Forum Europe aims to establish or strengthen “professional and personal ties between its members”15. The Transatlantic Policy Network funds both US and EU politicians to attend conferences and to make other trips; there have been several events held in Scotland, often in August. In recent years, US politicians have declared a total of 45 such trips with a total cost of US$233,336 'sponsored' by the Transatlantic Policy Network16. The European Energy Forum regularly organises trips for MEPs to visit energy production sites, sponsored by corporate members of the Forum.17

CEO believes that all this evidence, and that included in the following pages, makes it clear that some MEP-industry forums are used as clear vehicles for lobbying.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with interested MEPs from across political divides coming together to discuss issues of common interest with industry, civil society, trade unions and others.

However, it is clear that some of these unregulated cross-party groups are acting as “submarines of industry”, bringing together MEPs and industry under the radar of Parliamentary rules to achieve policy and legislative changes that benefit industry. In some cases, these groups are actively going beyond the rules that limit the activities set-out for the officially-recognised intergroups, for example in using the European parliament's name. 

As Buzek's working group to tighten the code of conduct for MEPs gets to work, it is vital that cross-party groups, including MEP-industry forums, are on that group's agenda and that strong rules emerge to govern this area. Such rules should include a mandatory register and transparency obligations. In this regard, the working group would do well to look at the all-party group regulations in the UK's Parliament which were recently reviewed and strengthened. These regulations set out that:

  • All cross-party groups over a certain size must register. Such groups must register all parliamentary members as well as the financial and material (non-financial) benefits received and their value and source. Changes and update to the register must be made within 28 days.
  • Smaller groups do not need to register but the chairman must declare, as part of his or her own declaration of financial interests, any financial or material support received in that capacity.
  • Groups are incentivised to register as they receive advantages over unregistered groups in terms of using the term 'all party parliamentary group' and having priority when booking parliamentary rooms.
  • If a consultancy (public affairs firm) wishes to act as a group's secretariat, the consultancy must publish its full client list on its website or else agree to provide such a list on request.

Read CEO's findings here: MEP-industry-forums-survey.pdf

References:

1 The European Parliament, Sixth Edition, 2005 (Richard Corbett MEP et al) indicates up to 80 cross-party groups exist although it is impossible to know the exact number.

2  From Opacity to Transparency? The Place of Organized Interests within the European Institutions. Chabanet, Didier,EUGOV Working Paper, No. 27, February 2011

3 These are: European Energy Forum; European Forum for Manufacturing; European Forum for Renewable Energy Sources; European Internet Foundation; European Life Sciences Circle; European Parliament Ceramics Forum; European Parliamentary Financial Services Forum; Forum in the European Parliament for Construction; Forum for the Automobile and Society; Globe-EU; Kangaroo Group; Knowledge for Innovation – K4I Forum of the European Parliament; Land use and Food Policy intergroup; Rail Forum Europe; Transatlantic Policy Network.

4  Burson-Marsteller website viewed on 21.5.2011: http://burson-marsteller.be/about/team/senior-consultants/#profile.peter.linton

5  Wall Street Journal (2005). In Europe, Finance Lobby Sways Terror-Funding Law. May 24 2005.

6  K4I website viewed on 23.5.2011: http://www.strausspartners.eu/SitePages/K4I.aspx

7  FOCOPE website viewed on 23.5.2011: http://focope.wordpress.com/about/

8  EFM website viewed on 23.5.2011: http://euromanuforum.com/objectives.html

http://dvcronin.blogspot.com/2011/02/time-to-talk-straight-about-corpora...

10 Wall Street Journal (2005). In Europe, Finance Lobby Sways Terror-Funding Law. May 24 2005.

11 http://archive.corporateeurope.org/tpntabd.html

12 RFE website viewed on 23.5.2011: http://www.rail-forum.eu/members/associate-members

13 EFF website viewed on 23.5.2011: http://www.europeanenergyforum.eu/

14 EFM website viewed on 20.5.2011: http://euromanuforum.com/activities.html

15 RFE website viewed on 23.5.2011: http://www.rail-forum.eu/about-us/mission-and-activities

16 Information taken from Legistorm website viewed on 21.5.11: http://www.legistorm.com/trip/list/by/sponsor/id/5811/name/Transatlantic...

17 See Giles Chichester MEP's declaration of financial interests:  http://www.europarl.europa.eu/members/public/yourMep/view.do?name=chiche...

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