Brussels Lobbyists

Europe's K Street

FILE PHOTO: Window cleaners work on the facade of the European Union Council building in Brussels
What's going on in there, anyway? Source: Reuters

As a nest for lobbyists, Brussels still does not come close to Washington, DC, but it’s going in that direction. There are around 35,000 lobbyists in the capital of the European Union (and Belgium), according to figures from Transparency International. The laws decided there apply to the EU’s 28—soon 27—member countries. That’s why, for example, American technology giants like Facebook, Uber and Google all have offices there. Google has 14 employees in its Brussels headquarters; nine of them have lobbyist credentials to enter the European Parliament.

Brussels’ pull on lobbyists is only likely to grow. French President Emmanuel Macron was elected in May after promising during his campaign to make Brussels not less, but more powerful. He wants to sway other European leaders to appoint the first euro zone finance minister and create an EU budget. More power draws more lobbyists.

“Whenever there’s new regulation there are suddenly a lot of job openings for lobbyists and lawyers,” said Lars Peter Svane, a former energy-industry lobbyist who runs the job search website Eighty percent of people hired through the website go into lobbying, Mr. Svane said.

It used to be a lot easier to influence legislation by taking an official out to an expensive dinner.

But rules on lobbyists’ access to the Brussels institutions have become stricter over the last few years. It used to be a lot easier to influence legislation by taking an official out to an expensive dinner, said one lobbyist who spoke on condition of anonymity. But recent transparency safeguards put a damper on lobbyists’ wining and dining.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker made it mandatory for lobbyists to be listed in a public, online registry before they can meet with officials working at the institution. At the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, the body representing national governments, rules are still more lax. But even there, “two simple rules should apply for the Parliament and the Council: no meetings with unregistered lobbyists and all meetings with lobbyists should be published,” said Daniel Freund, a campaigner at Transparency International.

Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German Green member of the European Parliament, publishes descriptions of his meetings on his website—even though he isn’t required to. Mr. Albrecht led negotiations on the most heavily lobbied piece of European legislation: a strict set of privacy rules that will change how companies process consumers’ data when it goes into effect next year. Before the law was passed in 2016, Mr. Albrecht received 3,999 amendments to the bill from other members of the Parliament, more than any other EU law to date. It was a sign of companies’ interest in the regulation: lobbyists use their access to members of the Parliament to suggest changes to legislation, hoping that lawmakers will copy their positions in official amendments.

Emily O’Reilly, the EU ombudsman tasked with investigating transparency complaints and maladministration allegations in the Brussels institutions, says that lobbyists still find loopholes to avoid reporting all of their meetings with lawmakers. Attorney-client privilege can help lobbyists masquerade as lawyers, thus avoiding disclosures.

“We don’t just apply the law, we help shape it,” reads the website of American law firm White & Case in a promotion of its EU services. One of the firm’s employees met with two officials from the Commission’s trade policy department in October 2015, according to documents obtained by Handelsblatt. But the meeting was never listed in the Commission’s online transparency registry.

In particular, the Council of diplomats from EU countries is “the least transparent body in the world,” Mr. Albrecht said. “There’s massive lobbying in Berlin and in other capitals. It’s the civil servants from national ministers who have a huge amount of influence on the final law,” he added. For evidence of how this harms ordinary citizens, look no further than the Dieselgate scandal. An EU law was passed last year will allow diesel cars to emit the harmful nitrogen oxide for a longer period of time than the Commission originally proposed. German car companies, associations and the German government were in favor of the delay.


Christian Wermke writes about politics for Handelsblatt. To contact the author:

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