The huge challenges facing the EU can only be met if citizens are confident it acts in the public interest.
Earlier this month, we saw the murky side of American corporate lobbying in Europe spill out of the shadows and on to the front pages of our newspapers. On display, in remarkable detail, were the tactics used by the multinational company Uber to try to change national and European Union legislation and regulation to suit its business model.
The methods it reportedly deployed covered backroom meetings with high-level politicians, the use of ‘stealth technology’ to block scrutiny, paying academics for flattering write-ups and the actual flouting of laws. Regulators everywhere should study these techniques to see what they are really up against.
While these revelations are concerning, they are not surprising. Brussels is the second lobbying capital of the world, reflecting its status as a global regulatory power. Standards and laws decided by the EU affect 450 million Europeans but also tend to be applied far beyond Europe’s borders, making the city a hotspot for lobbyists and businesses.
The EU capital is awash with tales of huge lobbying efforts accompanying major pieces of legislation. Just recently, those efforts were focused on EU legislation designed to regulate Big Tech.
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As compelling as the individual details of the Uber revelations might be, the most important lesson concerns the level of access top lobbyists had to the upper echelons of power, at both the national and the European level. The ease with which the company managed to secure the attention of such high level policy-makers ought to be a wake-up call for the EU administration.
Too many people still have a one-dimensional understanding of what lobbying is: the publicly registered meeting with an EU official to discuss a particular issue is but a small part of the overall picture. Transparent lobbying is legitimate and can be very useful, leading to improved policies. Much lobbying however happens away from the public eye, covering a range of informal and formal settings, moves by officials into the private sector and the establishment of front organisations, which obscure who or what is being represented.
A ‘good’ lobbying campaign tries to build a web of influence. This might include trying to use the networks of an ex-member of the European Commission to gain access to current commissioners, hiring EU officials to benefit from their networks and knowledge of the system or simply being sure to know when key meetings are taking place. The private sector usually has a vast array of resources, allowing them to cover all these paths—and many more—of influence.
Of various examples which have landed on my desk as complaints over the years, one stands out as an illustration of how corporations build influence. The world’s largest asset-management company, Blackrock, managed to secure a contract to carry out an EU study on sustainable finance, an area of significant regulatory interest to it. Its initial application should have resulted in much more critical scrutiny—as well as a few pointed questions as to why such a large company would be keen to secure such a relatively low-remuneration contract.
There are strong laws governing ethics and accountability in the EU institutions. The laws regulate moves by EU officials to the private sector, they require ex-commissioners to behave with integrity and discretion for life and they oblige high-level officials to meet only those lobbyists in the EU Transparency Register and to document these meetings publicly.
But the laws are only as strong as their enforcement. There is little monitoring of what ex-commissioners, for example, do after their time in office. I have tried to address the shortcomings in several inquiries over the years and have regularly called for the further tightening of ethics and accountability rules and more robust enforcement.
Change of culture
What the Uber Files show is that there needs to be a change of culture at the top of the EU but also in national administrations. A lax approach to revolving doors or to lobbying can severely undermine the integrity of any public service.
This change in culture must also include a willingness to deal with new challenges, such as ensuring that the public can still scrutinise decision-making in an era of text and instant messages. The evidence is that the EU institutions are not yet dealing properly with this.
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For example, despite an access-to-documents request by a journalist and a follow-up inquiry by my office, the European Commission failed to conduct a proper search for text messages between its president, Ursula von der Leyen, and the head of a global pharmaceutical company. The commission’s refusal to engage substantively on the matter gave the regrettable impression of an EU institution which was not forthcoming on matters of significant public interest.
Moreover, a survey of eight EU institutions and agencies by my office revealed little practical preparedness for dealing with accountability issues in an age of instant messaging. EU administrative practices must evolve and grow with the times we live in and the modern methods we use to communicate. It should have been obvious but the texts leaked as part of the Uber revelations demonstrate why the recording of relevant work-related text messages is so essential for the proper scrutiny of decision-making.
Lobbying strategies operate at the EU and national levels. The ease of access to the EU in the Uber case was matched in several member states; lobbying efforts at national level also feed into decisions taken by the EU. This raises the question as to whether there should be an EU directive on lobbying transparency and ethics. This could be considered when the treaties are next revised—the European Parliament last month called for a convention to revise the treaties, to act on the conclusions of the Conference on the Future of Europe.
A common understanding across the EU of what constitutes ethical behaviour for current and former members of public administrations would be an important step to reduce the undue influence of lobbying. Upholding ethics rules, adapting transparency practices to align with modern communication methods, making it easier for the public to monitor EU decision-making—these can all increase the democratic legitimacy of the EU and national administrations. Ethical and accountable public administrations are the bedrock of healthy democracies.
The EU faces many challenges—from the climate crisis to the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine to upholding the rule of law within its borders and ensuring a green and equitable recovery from the pandemic. Some difficult policy decisions will have be made, requiring significant public support. Maintaining such support will only be possible if citizens believe that the EU administration and its national counterparts are acting entirely in the public interest.