Corporate lobbies are being given privileged access when it comes to drafting EU legislation and policy proposals - claims campaign group
The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation in the European Union's new report on Expert Groups highlights the dominance of corporate advisers in the Directorate General for Enterprise expert groups. We know that DG Enterprise is one of the most powerful departments within the European Commission, with responsibilities in key policy areas like research, international trade, consumer, environmental, internal market and more. And it has the highest concentration of corporate advisers out of all of the commission's DGs. This matters because it means that big business is playing a key role in shaping decisions.
The influence shows, with legislative initiatives on climate protection or the regulation of chemical substances in products all watered down following the influence of corporate-led expert groups. We have been researching the commission's expert groups since 2008. Expert groups are advisory bodies set up to provide advice on drafting laws and policies. Reports from expert groups often become the backbone of the commission's legislative proposals. The commission relies on this external advice as it is a small administration, compared to the scale of its duties putting forward legislation for 27 countries and half a billion citizens.
For more than 30 years, expert groups have been meeting and advising the commission in complete secrecy. In 2005, following pressure from members of the European parliament, the commission published a list with the names of these expert groups. But it did not provide any information about their membership. We first examined the issue of expert groups in 2008, using access to documents legislation in order to find out the membership. The resulting press coverage boosted a major push for transparency and, in 2010, the membership of the vast majority of expert groups was made public. For more than a decade, financial law making in the EU was driven by expert groups made up almost exclusively of representatives from the financial industry. In the light of the financial crisis and following an outcry from MEPs - the commission changed the composition of these groups and increased the involvement of consumers, unions and academics. Nonetheless, the policies have not yet changed and the kind of effective reform that would make finance serve society - rather than the reverse - remains to be seen.
Some say that DG Enterprise's preference for taking advice from business interests is normal. We argue that this is wrong because the mission of DG Enterprise as part of a public body, the commission, is not to serve the interests of industry but ensure that business activity is taking place in a way that contributes to meeting society-wide challenges and problems. To fulfill its mission, DG Enterprise should be in contact with all kinds of interest in society. But our research found that in 32 of the 49 expert groups under DG Enterprise, with non-government participation, corporate interests make up the majority among non-government members. That is 65 per cent of these groups. In absolute numbers, DG Enterprise has 482 expert group members representing corporations and just 255 representing other interests; including academia, small and medium sized enterprises, unions, non-governmental organisations and so on. There are twice as many members representing corporate interests as all other interest groups in society.
And SMEs, which provide two-thirds of private sector jobs in Europe, have only 44 representatives among 845 non-government expert group members – just 5 per cent. Yet supporting SMEs is one of DG Enterprise's official priorities. The picture is even worse when it comes to employees and workers. Their unions have only 11 representatives or 1 per cent. And NGOs trying to pursue public interest goals - such as representing the rights of consumers, protecting the environment or striving for transparency - are also very marginally represented with just 66 members, or 8 per cent.
The commission has acknowledged that big business is over-represented and that corporate representatives should be reduced. But the body says that a 'rebalancing' will take at least six months. There are a number of concrete examples of how biased expert groups result in bad policies. For example, the 'FP7 security advisory group' influences the research priorities of the commission towards a direction that allows the armaments industry to make use of a considerable part of the research funds - with inadequate safeguards to guarantee these funds are not used to develop war equipment. The sub-group on critical raw materials has steered the commission towards exerting pressure on third governments to relax their labour and environmental standards - in order to facilitate access to raw materials for European corporations. And CARS-21 has succeeded in watering down targets for the reduction of CO2 emissions from cars. If it is to serve the public interest, the commission cannot afford keep receiving biased advice not even for six more months.
The European Parliament has criticised the commission in the past for engaging more with big business than with any other social group, through these advisory groups. It has also blocked 20 per cent of the expert groups' budget until the commission establishes new rules that guarantee a balanced composition and provide safeguards against their capture by special interests. In the context of the economic crisis, a massive transfer of competences from the national to the European level is underway. This makes the democratic deficit within the EU an even more important problem than before. The commission's engagement directly with society should be a way to reduce this democratic deficit, but - within expert groups as well as through other forms of consultation - the commission gives privileged access to a very specific group: big business. The European Parliament, as the only elected EU institution, must stick to its conditions and increase pressure for this to change.
Changing the composition of expert groups is a necessary but not sufficient condition to put the public interest first. The commission should diversify its advisers and engage with a wider range of groups, but it should also change its own mentality. It should stop identifying the interests of corporations with the interests of society at large. Corporate profits do not equate to resolving the crisis, improving standards of living, reducing poverty or protecting the environment. The commission must listen to what the Indignados and Occupy movements call 'the 99 per cent'. Putting people and the environment at the heart of policy making is the only way to get us out of the mess we are in. Yiorgos Vassalos is a researcher for the Corporate Europe Observatory campaign group and one of the authors the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation in the European Union report Who's driving the agenda at DG Enterprise?