Thursday, 24 September 2009

MEP-Industry fora – vehicles for lobbying ?

Earlier this month, representatives from the automotive, financial services and digital economy industries were joined by MEPs and EU Commission president José Manuel Barroso at a “networking cocktail” to relaunch three “MEP-industry forums” in the new Parliament. These corporate-funded forums seldom declare who they are funded by and are frequently run by big Brussels-based lobby groups and consultancies. When interviewed by CEO TV, industry members deny that these forums are used for lobbying. Some MEPs, however, acknowledge that they are lobbying vehicles serving industry interests.

On Wednesday 2 September, the Forum for the Automobile and Society (FAS), the European Parliamentary Financial Services Forum (EPFSF) and the European Internet Foundation (EIF) were officially relaunched in the European Parliament with the support of Commission president José Manuel Barroso. “These forums represent important European economic interests”, he told CEO TV. “It is our duty to listen to the different economic sectors because it is these sectors which create jobs in Europe”, he added.

MEP-industry forums are groups that involve MEPs from different parties together with corporate lobbyists. In October 2006, Corporate Europe Observatory revealed that there was a fundamental lack of transparency concerning how the European Parliament’s official intergroups and also the unregistered cross-party groups of MEPs were financed. Among the many unregistered cross-party groups were at least a dozen MEP-industry forums, where secrecy was particularly widespread. Three years later, not much has improved.

In practice, these forums co-chaired by MEPs and industry members, often act as think tanks. They facilitate what could be called “broad sectoral interest representation” during conferences and “lunch debates” that they organise and where they invite business people to talk about an issue that is subject to regulation by MEPs, the Council or the Commission.

The Forum for the Automobile and Society, for instance, gathers big automobile manufacturing and supply companies like BMW, Volkswagen, Ford, Toyota, or Michelin. It describes itself “as a think tank for all those interested in automotive issues” and makes sure to “relat[e] discussion topics closely to current legislative issues”.

In a brochure distributed during the networking cocktail, the European Internet Foundation (EIF) describes its mission as: “to support Members of European Parliament in their efforts to shape policy and regulation responsive to the unique potential and character of the internet revolution.”

MEP-industry forums do not consider themselves to be intergroups, which are official entities regulated by the European Parliament since 1999. Therefore, these informal forums are not bound by any parliamentary ethics and transparency rules at all.

According to the Commission, all entities engaged in “activities carried out with the objective of influencing the policy formulation and decision-making processes of the European institutions” are expected to register in its voluntary register of interest representatives – but none of the MEP-industry forums appears to have done it so far.

The financial resources of these forums are quite significant. While the FAS told CEO TV that its annual budget is “less than 100,000 euros”, Corporate Europe Observatory estimates the yearly budget of the European Internet Foundation (EIF) – which is run by lobby consultancy giant Burson-Marsteller – to be well above 400,000 euros (1) while the budget of the European Parliamentary Financial Services Forum (EPFSF) is likely to exceed €440,000 in 2009 (2). The EPFSF secretariat is run by the European Banking Federation, “the united voice of banks established in Europe”, while the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) – a fake industry-controlled “consumers” or “users” organisation – runs the secretariat of the Forum for the Automobile and Society (FAS).

Malcolm Harbour, a UK Conservative MEP who made a career in the car industry before becoming a politician and who co-chairs the FAS, denies that the forum is a lobbying vehicle for the car industry at the heart of the European Parliament. He had already previously denied being a “lobbyist for the car industry” – an accusation made by some of his fellow MEPs.

German MEP Wolf Klinz (ALDE), who co-chairs the European Parliamentary Financial Services Forum (EPFSF) and sits on the European Parliament's Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs, agrees that the EPFSF is a place where “broad lobbying” by financial services industry lobbyists takes place, but “only if this has not a negative connotation to it”. “In the [EPFSF] discussions, the interested parties of course defend their interests, there's no question about it”, he told CEO TV. “But we also defend our interests as legislators, so there is sometimes a clash”, he added.

Portuguese MEP Mario David, vice-president of the European People's Party, also agrees that MEP-industry forums are used for lobbying. According to him, the main difference with classical lobbying is that lobbying through those forums is “much more transparent”. “We still don't have in Europe that tradition of lobbying not being perceived as something that is evil. And it should not. If it is transparent, if it is correct, why not”, he added.

In May 2008, a large majority in the European Parliament voted for stronger transparency rules around MEP-industry forums, more precisely for listing “all existing, registered and non-registered Intergroups on Parliament's website, including full declaration of outside support for the activities of Intergroups as well as a statement of the Intergroup's broad aims”. It is to be hoped that the new Parliament will implement this decision to end the current secrecy around these lobby activities.

See also:
Notes
(1) 37 “business members” paying each a €10,000 annual fee + 46 “associate members” paying each 500-2,000 euros; see http://www.eifonline.org/en/articles/joinuspages/info-on-membership.cfm
(2) At least €440,000 with 55 “industry members” paying each a €8,000 annual fee for 2009; non members of the Forum may attend meetings on a pay-per-meeting basis for a €200 fee; see http://www.epfsf.org/finances.htm



CEO TV is an independent web TV channel that covers European political and economic affairs with a particular focus on the role of corporate lobbying in EU capital Brussels. CEO TV is a new project of Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) and publishes video reports on an irregular basis.

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