THINK industry” is the predominant message in Brussels as every sector of EU legislation is being overhauled to eliminate any elements that could be seen as detrimental to commerce.
But many think the move is going too far with EU institutions and government captured by big business, targeting safeguards for workers and consumers and essentially undermining countries social systems.
A new book, Corporate Europe, by Irish journalist David Cronin, investigates the role of business in Brussels especially in the financial crisis, banking regulation, tobacco, food, energy, and climate change.
“Corporations have captured almost every aspect of the decision-making process — from the moment any legislation is mooted these guys have their fingerprints on the process,” according to Cronin.
The expert panels that are set up to advise on most policies by the European Commission are top-heavy with industry figures. For instance, research has one of the biggest budgets in the globe — more than €70bn over the next seven years. Many of those advising how the money should be allocated represent those who will be recipients, he points out.
Similarly the European Food Safety Authority, according to a study by Corporate Europe Observatory, found that even after a review to deal with conflicts of interests, 19 of the chairpersons on their 21 expert panels have ties with industry, while more than half the experts, on their own admittance, are linked to the industry.
This is in an agency that carries out no research itself but relies on the findings of the industry producing the goods; that does not pay its panel members; and that cannot publish much of the scientific evidence because it is considered a commercial secret by its owners, the industry.
It’s not difficult to understand why an almost exclusively pro-industry agenda rules in Brussels when you consider that there are 30,000 commission officials, and between 15,000 and 30,000 corporate lobbyists — and it could be higher, says Cronin.
“For every commission official there is at least one corporate lobbyist and they seriously outnumber the number of elected MEPs so there is a strong indicator of where power really lies.”
On a breakdown of lobbyists, 70% are from the corporate private sector, 20% are from non-profit which includes consumer, NGOs, and trade unions, while 10% represents local authorities and governments.
Those living in Brussels have become far too used to the lobbying model with many MEPs willing to defend putting forward amendments to legislation in their name that have been written by industry lobbyists, he says.
“A lot of people are surprised to learn just how malleable elected representatives are, that big business writes the laws in many cases is something that many of us have almost come to regard as normal — unacceptable, but normal. It happens everywhere of course including Ireland. It’s not confined to Brussels.”
But it is not just a few experts pushing their interests — this kind of thinking has now become endemic in Brussels, he believes. “Most important strategic thinking of where the EU is heading is being dictated by corporate lobby groups such as Europe Round Table of Industrialists and BusinessEurope,” he says.
They have privileged access to the most senior people in the EU institutions and, according to Cronin, have low-key meetings in private where they make the case for the reforms they want — which ultimately undermine the welfare state, pensions and labour protections.
One very powerful vested interest keeps cropping up in all kinds of fora — the tobacco industry, he has found. It funds Brussels-based thinktanks as well as employs people who have been on the inside of the EU system. One of the industry’s key objectives was for an impact assessment of the effects of new legislation on a narrow set of indicators affecting business. “This holds everything hostage to the demands of big business,” says Cronin.
It was involved in the TransAtlantic Trade Dialogue, run by a former British American Tobacco employee. This has now moved centre stage with the launch of the trade negotiations between the EU and the US with their demand for a special court where corporations could sue governments for decisions that deprive them of potential profits. The new EU-Canada agreement has such a mechanism, which Cronin says opens the way for companies selling genetically modified seed to proceed against the EU.
The EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership talks, which have just got under way and are not public, offers business another opportunity to suit its own agenda, he warns. The drive to ensure that standards are compatible on both sides of the Atlantic have the capacity to lower EU levels on food, chemicals, data protection and financial regulation.
Cronin believes people need to be clear and unite around a number of key demands to ensure they get a fair deal such as discouraging corporate tax avoidance, climate justice, arms industry. “We need a debate,” he says, adding that the media and journalists have been too willing to address issues with very strict limits that leave little room for the reality of most peoples lives.
“Economic matters are being confined to politicians and economists but these issues are way too important to leave to these so-called experts who are paid to represent a certain world view and essentially engage in a class war,” he says.
The emphasis on increasing profits for business by reducing all costs is having a big impact on ordinary citizens, with their rights being whittled away in the name of some kind of progress, he concludes.
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