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Was it fate? On the morning I was supposed to go to a Brussels event on "participation, ethics and transparency in European decision-making", there was a pan-European general strike against austerity. Eurostar was advising not to travel. I considered my position. It looked like I was being stopped from attending an EU-funded event aimed at engaging citizens, by the self-same people of Europe taking direct action in a shout of rage into the seemingly deaf ears of the troika.
Would it be better if my train didn’t arrive? There I was, passport in pocket, prepared to go to a two-day event where I would be ‘listened to’ as a ‘citizen of Europe’. I had been invited by Spinwatch, the fiercely independent monitor of PR and spin in Britain, one of the two hundred civil society groups that make up the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) who were running the event. The main purpose? To lobby Brussels, openly and transparently, for open and transparent lobbying in Brussels. Important, of course. But would I learn much from an EU-funded trip into the Brussels bubble? I should be in Smith Square, the London outpost of the European Commission, where a protest was planned in solidarity with the twenty-three countries taking action across Europe that day. At 9am, while I sat refreshing the Eurostar page, there had already been clashes with the police as demonstrators tried to stop buses leaving Madrid station. Greeks were massing for a rally from Athens to Syntagma Square. Portugal had protests planned in forty towns and cities. I was ready to jump on a bus to Smith Square, when Andy Rowell from Spinwatch called me. It was all okay. The train was running.
Brussels that evening was still as the eye of a storm, a world away from the millions of demonstrators on the streets across the continent. We gathered at a Lebanese restaurant in the centre of the city – transparency campaigners from France, Poland, the Czech Republic, Spain, Germany; myself and others from the UK. Besides Spinwatch, there were sizeable contingents from Access Info, the Environmental Law Service and Friends of the Earth Europe among others, but not all were attached to organisations – I sat opposite a man from the Spanish Pirate Party, who kept me updated with photos on his phone of the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Madrid, choking all routes to the parliament building. In the wry smiles of some of my fellow conference-goers I saw my own feelings of guilt and dissonance: They were on the streets, but the fifty or so of us were the chosen few, invited by the EU to help "create a two-way dialogue and greater trust between European public officials and European citizens”.
Those two days wiped the wry smile from my face. Secret lobbying in Europe should be one of the central concerns for the anti-austerity movement, and it’s hard to comprehend the enormity of the issue without a trip into the Brussels bubble. On the first day, Spinwatch took a group of us on an unofficial lobby tour around the EU quarter, where the evidence of capture by banks and big business was on plain display. To see the professional lobby headquarters circling the Commission and Parliament buildings is to witness the networks of financial power that inform European decision-making mapped clearly onto the streets, a revolving door so fast that the eye blurs. The City of London corporation building is bang opposite the Commission headquarters, competing for the ear of power with bigger players like the European Banking Federation, which represents 5,000 corporate banks from 31 countries. By Alter EU's estimate, there are between 15,000 and 30,000 professional lobbyists working in Brussels. Almost every industry imaginable has its own trade lobby group in residence, but the financial sector is where the real action lies.
Between 15,000 and 30,000. That’s a big discrepancy, you might be thinking. This is because no one knows how many lobby firms are resident in Brussels, let alone their staff numbers. Finance Watch reckons there are 700 financial industry lobbyists roaming the corridors of the Commission and Parliament, but this can only be an estimate. The EU introduced a voluntary lobby register (euphemistically called the 'Transparency Register') last year, but ALTER-EU is certain that more than 120 companies are missing from this. Some of these will be the companies that lobbied against the financial regulation that could have prevented the economic meltdown in 2008, and continue to do so from the shadows today. Those demonstrators in Southern Europe bearing signs comparing Merkel to the Fuhrer should know that decision-making is more distributed than they think.
Where does the power lie? This seems to me the most important question for the anti-austerity movement and the concomitant call for real democracy. A project led by Mary Kaldor has shown that since the onset of the financial crisis, protest across Europe has paradoxically placed more emphasis on the national, with a handful of pan-European days of action the exceptions to the rule. openDemocracy’s series ‘Subterranean Politics’ followed this with an invite to shift the focus onto European and global institutions – but we cannot do so, as I saw clearly in those two days, without confronting the unofficial influencers, quite literally on the doorsteps of European power.
Guilt at not being out on the streets had, by the final conference, turned into an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Three officials responsible for transparency in European decision-making were brought forward to ‘answer the citizens’ in the suitably imposing International Press Center at the Residence Palace: the Transparency Register Secretariat for the European Parliament Jose Luis Rufas; Christian Linder, a member of Commissioner Sefcovic's cabinet, and Gundi Gadesmann from the Office of the European Ombudsman. Our ‘inside man’ on the panel was Peter Facey, who as the head of Unlock Democracy has been working closely with Spinwatch on lobbying transparency this side of the channel.
We asked what they had learned from the latest tobacco industry scandal, why they didn’t have a mandatory lobby register (Britain’s question), what EU legislation could do to help combat corruption in member states. A teacher from Catalonia drew applause for asking why, when she had to fill in dozens of forms for a small educational grant, did the lobby firms only have to fill in a simple online form on trust? The answers were a master class in dissembling. Rufas informed us that a mandatory register "was not a magic solution". Plus, in countries where they do make lobbyists register by law “it doesn't work ideally either". On fact-checking the voluntary list, it would be "very difficult”, apparently, given the number of lobbyists at work in Brussels. An admission of gross incompetence by the Parliament?
That was not the worst of it. Commission cabinet member Christian Linder went further, declaring that there was in fact, no problem at all. "I have never seen a national government as transparent" he said, drawing an audible gasp from the ‘citizens’. The solution was that we could all follow legislation and participate online. He went on to point out that they even broadcast the council debates, although he was told that no-one follows them. Gadesmann agreed, saying "Brussels the remote democracy" was swift becoming a thing of the past. Did we not know that, since Europe Day in May of this year, if we gathered one million signatures from EU citizens (within certain stipulations) we could call on the Commission to propose an act of law? Facey made a valiant attempt at breaking through this complacent united front, but to no avail. He later said that he began to feel sorry for the three of them, tasked as they were with defending their institution’s dependence on corporate and financial vested interests.
The European project is facing the greatest crisis of its history. The austerity consensus suffered another mortal blow this month, as the Commission again cut its growth forecast for the zone sharply to 0.1 percent. The peoples of the continent have never been so against unification. The 18.49 million jobless in the seventeen Eurozone countries need only point to the devastation around them – the rocketing suicide rates, the rise of the far right, the tearing apart of the social fabric. National governments are keystones, but economic decision-making is increasingly concentrated in the streets of Brussels. Take a stroll through the EU quarter, just four square kilometres between the Avenue des Arts and the Parc du Cinquantenaire, and you will see where the power lies. The millions who turned out on the streets across Europe should take note: we are not only up against the corrupt politician, the unelected head of state and the faceless bureaucrat. It’s time to shine a light on those who whisper in their ears.
The Lobby Planet guide to Brussels, by the Corporate Europe Observatory, can be downloaded for free here.
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