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lobby battles

Watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory regularly organizes a "citizen's tour of corporate power in Brussels". It reveals how entrenched corporate lobbying has become in today's politics.

The tour itself is a kind of safari of the EU quarter, the small Brussels neighborhood that houses the European Union's most important institutions as well as offices of virtually every multinational company, a plethora of trade associations, mercenary think tanks and astroturfed advocacy groups. With some 30,000 professional lobbyists, most of them representing big business, Brussels is second only to Washington DC in sheer amount of pressure exerted to influence politics.

Brussels EU quarter - 1

Safari-wise, of course, all this remains very abstract, with only shiny copper plaques hinting at the activities behind the glass facades. The most exciting moment might be when the people in suits go out to lunch, or even, on Fridays, for a beer.

But the problem, as CEO explains in a crash-course video, is far-reaching. It has to do with balance and transparency, more than with the practice of lobbying itself (NGOs are lobbyists too). Balance, as corporate interests simply outspend all other, civil society voices. But also as they have overwhelming priviledged access to policymakers, partly as a result of the infamous revolving door. And transparency, as the EU's policymaking processes still display a shocking lack of accountability.

(To distinguish this from my recent discussion of Han's 'The Transparent Society', transparency here is not an end in itself but a means of guaranteeing political integrity. Han doesn't really address this dimension.)

Brussels EU quarter - 2

Recent examples - this is just last week - include the way fossil fuel companies "undermined EU renewable energy targets and subsidies in favour of gas as a climate fix" (The Guardian). And the way the pharmaceutical industry has captured the debate, to the extent that the EU now speaks "pharmish" (CEO Big Pharma study).

The list goes on to cover all major policy battlefields, from climate to copyright to chemicals, and of course TTIP. In virtually every case the industry's strategy turns out to be a variation on the one pioneered by the tobacco industry in the 1950s: manufacturing doubt.

The documentary 'Endocrination' (2014), for instance, offers a detailed reconstruction of how this strategy, with its invariable appeal to "sound science", succesfully derailed EU policymaking. One observer wrily comments how "the current generation of policymakers are for the most part not aware of where it comes from, i.e. a PR strategy from the tobacco industry".

Brussels EU quarter - 3

The term post-democratic has been used over the past years to describe the EU, especially in its handling of the financial, Euro and Greek crises. But pre-democratic would be more to the point: as the work of groups like CEO shows, if anything the EU needs stronger democratic institutions capable of withstanding the torrents of corporate disinformation.

Pre-democratic, by emphasizing the goal of the EU project, may also help deal with the disheartening sense of déjà vu in these lobby battles.

See also CEO's guide 'Lobby Planet' (pdf). The current edition is from 2011 (before the American tech companies became some of the biggest spenders in town), so hopefully they'll put out an updated edition soon.

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