In Brussels, the distinction between working as an advisor, or as a lobbyist, can be as thin as a fine pinstripe. Rules at the European Parliament are shockingly few. There’s not much preventing the representation of corporate interests during and after an MEP’s tenure. So, can Europe trust its well-paid officials to put the public interest first?

Actors, like many politicians, change costumes to suit the script. In Brussels, the dark suit of a European Commissioner looks pretty much like the dark suit of a corporate lobbyist; it could even be a case of “buy one suit, get one free.”

One problem with lobbying is that by definition it’s a concept not always cut from the same cloth, it has different patterns. As European institutions slowly build a transparency framework, clearer definitions of lobby activity are needed.

The European Commission gets a lot of bad press when it comes to investigating the rights and wrongs of Commissioner’s new jobs.

But how does the Commission compare with the Parliament? And does the president of the European Parliament enjoy too much quasi-judicial power when it comes to the questionable ethics of European deputies?

Ex-commissioners taking up ‘problematic new roles’

In its recently published report on revolving doors at the European Commission, lobby watchdogs Corporate Europe Observatory and LobbyControl take a strong view that one in three ex-commissioners go through revolving doors, into what they say are ‘problematic new roles.’

According to the report, nine former European Commissioners who left office a year ago have taken up new roles in big business or in organisations with links to big business.

The report examines cases such as ex-commissioner (and now MEP) Viviane Reding’s positions on several boards; Neelie Kroes’s advisory position at Bank of America Merrill Lynch; and former trade commissioner Karel De Gucht’s proposed board membership at Belgian telecoms giant Proximus.

But boss of bosses, former Commission President José Manuel Barroso, has notified the Commission of 22 new roles. Busy man.

CEO and LobbyControl argue that close relationships between the EU executive and the corporations it regulates opens the door to corporate capture and potential conflicts of interest.

The 26 Barroso Commissioners who left office in 2014 racked up a total of 115 post-Commission roles between them. Of these 115, 96 have been formally authorised; 36 of those formally authorised were considered by the Commission’s in-house Ad hoc Ethical Committee.

Euranet Plus contacted several of the former Commissioners noted in the CEO report, asking them how lobby transparency could be improved. At the time of broadcast, none had replied.

Two third of meetings held with industry

Transparency International is leading the way with a new generation of tech tools designed to scrutinise lobbying in Brussels.

With their interactive database website ‘Integrity Watch,’ anyone can create a unique overview of the European Commission’s lobby meetings since December 2014. Users can simply click on the graphs or they can sort and filter meetings.

As more data becomes available, trends, timing of meetings and outcomes will be more effectively interrogated. Online tools like this cannot tell you what was said at a meeting or a cocktail party, but they do get one step closer to a formal level of accountability, and they clarify questions and relationships which might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Transparency International’s Integrity Watch report produced some surprising statistics:

75 percent of lobby meetings are with companies and industry representatives.

The Commission’s new transparency measures only cover 1 percent of officials and 20 percent of lobbyists.

14 of the 20 biggest law-firms in the world that all have Brussels offices, such as Clifford Chance, White & Case or Sidley Austin were not on the lobby register at the time of publication.

But 11 out of these 14 law firms have registered as lobby organisations in Washington DC where registration is mandatory.

It’s no surprise then that mandatory lobby registration is widely called for as the next step in the evolution of EU transparency.

Changes needed

Politicians caught in revolving doors may seem like an accident waiting to happen. It’s not just about former public officials having privileged access to the decision-making process, it’s about public confidence in the political process, in democracy.

So can we trust our officials, elected and un-elected, not to make personal gain from their influence on tobacco legislation, diesel car emissions, regulation of financial markets, energy markets, trade policy and Europe’s strategy towards Russia?

Whichever roles Commissioners and MEPs find to play, whichever doors they enter or exit, stage left or right, they should follow Plato’s advice, and never be afraid of the light.

  • Author: Brian Maguire, Euranet Plus News Agency

Euranet Plus News Agency viewing tip