The political landscape has evolved in a complex web of intermingled institutions with overlapping power where the individual gets the perception of a bureaucratic labyrinth he cannot navigate. Lobbying emerges as an essential link, bridging the schism between specialized knowledge and legislative action. Organizations and individuals frequently exercise lobbying practices to further their interests by attempting to influence legislative or administrative decisions. In essence, this practice is in harmony with the values of our society, as democracy embraces advocacy, but lobbying detached from the norms of ethical conduct endangers the societal balance of fair representation.
With Brussels being the center of political gravity in EU, and lobbying activity concentrating around the EU institutions, we can fairly state that Brussels is the lobbying capital of Europe. Every year, large corporations, business lobby groups, lobby consulting firms, and law firms invest approximately 3 billion euros to make sure that EU policymaking is in line with the demands of big business, and it frequently succeeds.
As an international watchdog indicates, at least 48,000 individuals work in this European capital in organizations seeking to influence the EU institutions and decisions, with the majority working for businesses and their lobbying organizations. Corporate lobbyists are present and actively participating whenever the European Commission suggests a new rule or the European Parliament votes on a new law. They outnumber and outspend public interest groups.
Increased industry influence and corporate capture of decision-making are frequent outcomes of larger numbers of lobbyists, larger funds for lobbying, and privileged access to decision-makers. The fact that corporate lobbyists predominately make up the membership of the Commission’s numerous advisory groups, or expert groups, is one illustration of such privileged access. Due to this dominance, and enormous intensity of lobbying activity, questions arise on whether EU legislation can maintain its integrity intact.
Qatargate and weak EU
Last December, shockwaves spread not only across Europe but also throughout the world, in the event of an unprecedented scandal involving top EU officials that had them being bribed in order to rule in favor of Qatar. The Vice-President of the European Parliament was accepting large sums of money in exchange for advocacy in favor of the government of Qatar, which was trying to alter the negative perception of the bidding process and the slave-like working conditions in the wake of the Qatar World Cup.
The scandal involved numerous MEPs and officials and indicated profoundly that the ethical pillar of the EU had cracked. Although there are mechanisms and the European code of Good Conduct on lobbying that regulate the lobbying industry, they still were proven inefficient. Transparency Register, the corpus that requires influence-seeking actors to register themselves in order to benefit from easier access to EU institutions, is the main mechanism that sheds light on lobbying affairs in the EU. Moreover, the European Ombudsman covers the role of the investigating bureau, which deals with maladministration in the institution of the EU. In addition to the proactive role of whistleblowers that promote and ensure ethical conduct, the EU professedly reassures itself that it has regulated the industry.
Transparency Register, operates on a voluntary basis, thus making it susceptible to the goodwill of the related party upon declaration. This creates a fragile system where data can be obscured. Also, the Ombudsman can only act upon indications, such as the Qatargate, where there was a diametric stance between the reports and the actions of the officials. There we can observe the lack of a preemptive action.
All in all, the problem remains highly legislative. Ethics is a virtue that we have to nurture it, in order to become part of our culture. The only way to achieve this is by creating a legal framework that supports ethical conduct and perpetuates it. The aftermath of Qatargate showed that the moral stand of EU legislators has fluctuations, as the EU Parliament initiated a reform process that would regulate lobbying activities, and after several months of the proactive approach, the process is still stalling. Various fractions in the Parliament are obstructing the reforms.
This scandal should serve as a warning. If the EU institutions do not reflect, and stay passive by using the maxim that the few “rotten apples” are now out, it will have negative effects. European Parliament elections are just over a year away, and there is genuine fear that the current situation and the inability to implement meaningful reforms and provide the public with a sense of ethical conduct, could drive the voters towards the populists.