Monday, 30 November 2009

Champagne corks popping in Rue Belliard

Commission President Barroso surprised many with his early announcement on Friday afternoon of the portfolios for the 13 new candidate Commissioners and the 13 current Commissioners who will continue in Barroso-2.

Barroso gave Günther Oettinger (German Chancellor Angela Merkel's appointee) the job as energy Commissioner. This news is likely to have resulted in champagne corks popping in the Rue Belliard, the ugly four-lane motorway full of lobbyists' offices that cuts through the Brussels EU quarter.

No.s 60-62 Rue Belliard are the lobby offices of German coal and nuclear energy giant EnBW, a company he knows well from his time as prime minister of Baden-Württemberg. EnBW's offices are inside Baden-Württemberg's official offices in the Brussels EU quarter. Oettinger's many past favours to EnBW include lobbying heavily on the company's behalf to keep its nuclear power plants open, at a time when the German government had committed to a nuclear phase-out.

On Rue Belliard 65, opposite EnBW's offices, are the lobby headquarters of FORATOM, the European alliance of nuclear energy producers. Andris Piebalgs, Oettinger's predecessor as Energy Commissioner, was very pro-nuclear, but with Oettinger in the seat, FORATOM is likely to have an even closer ally in the Commission's Berlaymont headquarters.

What did Barroso have in mind when appointing Oettinger? Nuclear energy remains hugely controversial among European citizens. Is there any real chance that Oettinger can defend the European public interest in a radical shift towards genuinely sustainable energy? The European Parliament's approval hearings are in the second week of January. To be continued...

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Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Lobbying campaign by hedge funds not declared in Commission register

According to eFinancialCareers "it emerged yesterday that the Alternative Investment Management Association is paying Finsbury €1m to lobby against the EU’s Alternative Investment Fund Managers’ Directive."

The Alternative Investment Management Association (AIMA), the main lobby group for the hedge fund industry in Europe, vigorously opposes the very modest light-touch regulation of the proposed EU directive. AIMA's lobby campaign to further weaken the directive will now be boosted by lobby consultancy firm Finsbury, but none of this will be visible in the Commission's lobby disclosure register. Both AIMA and Finsbury make use of the voluntary nature of the register to simply opt out. The fightback by vested interests against the proposed investment fund directive is one of the biggest lobbying battles of the last years. The failure of the Commission's register to throw light on who's involved in this lobbying, on whose behalf and with what financial resources reflects at least two major shortcomings:
- lobby transparency must become mandatory
- consultancies lobbying for industry clients should be obliged to report more frequently than the current yearly update, so new clients appear in the register when the lobbying is happening, not years after

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Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Cross-party MEP initiative demands genuine lobby transparency

A new High Level Working Party of MEPs and Commission representatives starts talks tomorrow on a joint Commission-Parliament lobby disclosure register. Yesterday, more than 25 MEPs were represented (in person or by an assistant) at a seminar in the European Parliament on how to achieve real improvements in transparency around EU lobbying. The seminar is a follow-up to the pledge signed by more than 75 MEPs in the run-up to the European Parliament elections, committing to “to provide leadership in lobbying transparency and ethics”.

Danish Social Democrat MEP Dan Jørgensen, one of the three MEPs hosting the seminar, kicked of by emphasising that lobbying can play a positive role, but that privileged access and unequal resources means some are less heard than others in Brussels. A new framework is needed to ensure that lobbying becomes transparent and makes a positive contribution to decision-making.

MEPs Claude Turmes and Dan Jorgenson and moderator Leigh Phillips

MEPs Claude Turmes (Greens) and Dan Jørgenson (S&D)
and moderator Leigh Phillips

Green MEP Claude Turmes, also co-hosting, reminded those present that the Parliament already has a strong mandate to improve lobby transparency: in May 2008, the Parliament voted for a mandatory register, with names of lobbyists included as well as detailed financial disclosure. The same resolution also called for a regular review of the register, sanctions for non-compliance and a properly staffed and resourced administration to oversee implementation. Turmes stressed that one of the key priorities for the Parliament was to get lobbying law firms to sign up to the register.

Dutch Socialist Party MEP Dennis de Jong, who had presented the new initiative to the Dutch media earlier in the day, encouraged MEPs to embrace a code of conduct which included not meeting with unregistered lobbyists. He also underlined the importance of stricter rules for MEPs on gifts and hospitality provided by corporate lobbies. Advertising inside the Parliament by large corporations is another issue that De Jong wants to tackle with the new cross-party initiative.

MEP Dennis de Jong (GUE) and ALTER-EU's Jorgo Riss

On behalf of the ALTER-EU coalition, Jorgo Riss presented examples of numerous shortcomings in the Commission's register. Not only is that register voluntary (which means that anyone preferring to stay out can do so, as the boycott by lobbying law firms and thinktanks shows), it also requires very little information from those who choose to register. In the US, far stronger lobby disclosure rules mean that far more information is available about the lobbying done by European firms in Washington DC, than in Brussels, Riss explained.

During the debate, a number of people stressed that the European Parliament is in a strong position to make the register de facto mandatory. The Parliament’s system of permanent access passes for lobbyists could simply become dependant on registration and full compliance with transparency requirements. Lobby consultants' club SEAP, which opposes a mandatory register, has already started lobbying against this and is also calling for law firms to be allowed to stay out of the lobby transparency register.

The new cross-party initiative will organise a series of meetings in the coming months and provide input to the High Level working Party of MEPs and Commission representatives about the upcoming joint Commission-Parliament register.

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Monday, 9 November 2009

Commission's advisers on financial markets: bankers only?

ALTER-EU's new report, 'A captive Commission – the role of the financial industry in shaping EU regulation' which was launched last week, shows that most of the so-called 'expert groups' advising the EU Commission on financial market regulation are dominated by industry lobbyists. More than 80% of the non-governmental 'experts' in these advisory groups represent big banks and investment funds.

During the launch event, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen (president of the Party of European Socialists and former Danish Prime Minister) called this situation is “a disaster for democracy”. Dennis de Jong,United Left MEP and member of the parliamentary committee on the crisis, pointed out that, unlike big banks - “small cooperative banks and 'green banks', have no voice in Brussels and their views are ignored”. Their role in the Commission's expert groups is marginal. Sven Giegold, Green MEP, and a member of the Economic and Monetary Committee of the European Parliament, added that while in today's “autistic economics” it might be hard to find experts committed towards the public interest and without financial links to the industry, the Commission doesn't even try. There are independent experts out there, including academics that predicted the crisis and NGOs with elaborate proposals, but the Commission chooses not to invite them to join expert groups and to stick with the giant banks.

While MEPs from different political groups are deeply concerned about corporate capture of Commission advisory groups, the Commission seems to be in denial. When asked by the EUobserver to comment on the findings of the report, a Commission official stated that "if you want financial advice you don't ask a baker". Does the Commission really, even after the biggest crisis in 70 years, think that advice on how to regulate financial markets can be left to the big banks and investment funds themselves? The ALTER-EU report shows how the banking lobbyists invited by the Commission to join its advisory groups have used their privileged access to lobby for their own narrow commercial interests, contributing to the inadequate regulation that contributed to the financial collapse.

No less convincing was the Commission's second argument against the ALTER-EU critique: the report, a Commission official argued, is 'unfair' because it 'concentrates solely to the financial sector'.

This would imply that it is not a problem if a whole area of decision-making, like financial markets, is captured by special interests. This position hardly seems defensible. But the Commission's response also ignores the evidence provided by ALTER-EU previously which shows that the corporate capture of Commission 'expert groups' is a widespread problem. ALTER-EU's position is that corporate-dominated advisory bodies are unacceptable and that the Commission should dissolve them or radically change their composition.

Commissioner McCreevy, responsible for financial market regulation, earlier this year stated that listening too much to the lobbyists with the biggest budgets was one the reasons that the devastating and continuing crisis happened. Were these empty words or will the Commission now act to end the scandal of powerful advisory groups being controlled by big banking lobbyists?

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