Corporate Power and the EU

David Cronin’s book Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War (Pluto Press) is based on his years as a journalist in Brussels looking at the way in which the European Union’s institutions really work. I also spent thirteen years in Brussels, working at the European Parliament and, before that, five years working as an advisor to the late Tom Megahy, an EU-critical left Labour Euro-MP, back in the North of England. Cronin and I have come to very much the same conclusions. The European Community may have been founded, in part at least, for its ostensible purpose of preventing a return to the warlike past. As the European Union, however, it has been hijacked by corporate interests which have sought to institutionalise a particular form of the capitalist system, a hyper-exploitative form which has been called ‘neoliberalism’. One of the principal means by which this has been achieved is the army of corporate lobbyists which forms the central topic of Cronin’s book.

Corporate power both underwrites and benefits from the existing undemocratic structures of the European Union. This is why Cronin’s book is so important, and why it should be widely read. I interviewed its author at the International Press Centre in Brussels.

Steve McGiffen: Tell us a bit about your background, how you became active on the EU-critical left.

David Cronin: Well, I’m from Dublin, and I moved to Brussels in 1995, to work for Irish Green MEP Patricia McKenna, who was very critical of the EU. After that I worked as a journalist in the mainstream, for European Voice, a weekly paper which at the time was owned by the Economist.

SMcG: It was obligatory reading for everyone at the European Parliament and I expect in the other institutions, too.

DC: Yes, well working at European Voice was a real eye-opener, partly because it gave you access to high level officials, and partly because of the nature of the paper itself. We used to publish regular supplements, and these purported to be straightforward editorially independent content, yet they were financed by big business, by for example the chemical industry, the arms industry, you know -the real bad guys.

Now they have this thing called ‘Comment-Visions’ financed by Shell, and this kind of thing of course blurs the distinction between ads and journalism. My position, in any case, became increasingly uncomfortable. I left in 2006, and became much more openly critical, not just in what I was writing but in my actions. For example, I tried to arrest Tony Blair for war crimes. I was working for IPS when I tried to arrest Lieberman, the Israeli Foreign Minister, and they sacked me for that. After that I lost my accreditation as a journalist.

SMcG: When and how did you come to the conclusion that the basic function of the European Union was not quite what it says on the can?

DC: I was always critical. I took part in the early 1990s campaign against Maastricht. But for a while I did fall under the spell in Brussels. However critical you may be it’s hard to resist the charm offensive. There’s very little critical journalism here, it’s a cosy club with a revolving door. Official spokespersons for the Commission are often ex-journalists, and there’s an unhealthily close relationship. Journalism as a profession is quite badly paid and working for the Commission is much better paid. You get freelancers working for the Commission on the side.

SMcG: Do you think that the EU could be reformed or reconstituted to become a genuinely internationalist body?

DC: No. Neoliberalism has become a religion here and internationally, with what I call the cartel party phenomenon, within which differences between left and right are slender, and focus on issues such as gay marriage. Left parties are just as gung-ho in favour of the austerity agenda. In Spain the social democrats, the PSOE paved the way for the destruction of the welfare state, to take just one example from many. You can’t change the EU from within. NGOs have a very small impact. They want to give the impression of what Thatcher called TINA, ‘There Is No Alternative’. That may be true right now but we are building a movement. Civil society has been incorporated as a way of preserving power. Look for example at the way trade unions accept the idea of competitiveness, yet when you look into it there’s no real definition of this key concept. Unions have accepted the core tenets of neoliberalism. In Ireland the trade unions have taken no side on the fiscal treaty.

SMcG: José Bové has said that the way to at least in part democratise the EU is to make the Commission President a position elected by the people. I would argue that this would be exactly the kind of false democracy which they are likely to go for as a smokescreen to disguise the lack of any real democracy, or the erosion of what’s left of democracy. Which of us do you agree with, and why?

DC: The problem isn’t only the Commission but the European Central Bank, the ECB, as well as the other EU institutions. We simply have no say in decision-making. So on one level I agree with Bové, but the idea that this would be some sort of panacea is crazy. Really the Commission should be reduced to the level of a civil service or even abolished. In any case, this is an elitist debate. It’s not what we’re looking for, an issue around which we can mobilise the people, like climate change or food safety. Just about anything would be more democratic than the current system.

SMcG: You talk a lot about lobbyists in your book. What is the basic problem here, and how might it be addressed?

corpeuropeDC: We have corporate lobbyists writing the law, they dominate the so-called expert groups which advise the Commission on new legislative proposals at the preparatory stage, while at the more advanced stage when the European Parliament assesses these proposals and votes on amendments and then the substantive measure, lobbyists get busy and meddlesome, writing amendments to which MEPs put their own names.

SMcG: I have to admit that, as an assistant to progressive MEPs, and then a member of the Secretariat of the United European Left with an advisory function, advising our Members on the Environment and Public Health, I did a mirror image of the same, as you have to cover a wide range of subjects and simply don’t have the specialised knowledge that people like Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth have at their disposal. But I would never have made a secret of what I saw as perfectly legitimate consultation. Couldn’t the right claim the same defence?

DC: They could, but it isn’t the same. For a start, progressive NGOs don’t have the same resources. And it’s the lack of openness which shocks people outside of all this. Everything should be open and acknowledged. And there are fundamental differences. What you have there are environmentalists working in the public interest, working to reduce pollution and so on. Whereas corporate lobbyists’ only objective is to get their clients’ products on the market, with no regard for the environment or the social good. Any organisation involved in seeking to influence public policy should be open to public scrutiny. The rules in this area are way too weak. True, there is now a register for lobbyists, but it’s voluntary, you still don’t have to register to gain access.

SMcG: It must be difficult to police, though. You’re trying to find a balance between accessibility for members of the public – this is supposed to be a democratic institution after all – and restricting access to paid lobbyists.

DC: Well there’ll always be people who circumvent the rules, of course. It’s easy to get an access badge. There’s far too many given out. Corporate Europe Observatory have done some good work on this question, and there may well be improvements to the system, but a register of lobbyists isn’t a solution to the whole problem. Progressives shouldn’t concentrate on this kind of question to the degree they lose sight of the bigger picture. There’s absolutely no transparency in the legislative process or the way the EU is run. Corporations dominate it.

Take the directive on hedge funds. In many instances it follows a text proposed by Deutsche Bank word for word. Or tobacco. The World Health Organization rules say that tobacco companies should not be consulted by those responsible for writing laws unless there is an extremely good reason for that to happen. Yet there are hundreds of tobacco lobbyists working in Brussels and they are clearly influencing policy, as has been seen by the delays to and possible derailing of more restrictive legislation. The tobacco industry literally gets away with murder. Globally, six million people die from tobacco every year. Tobacco giant BAT was one of the companies behind convincing the European Commission that it was appropriate to use the system of business impact assessment in relation to tobacco legislation. This means you have to consult with the companies which will be affected. So mandatory plain packaging was kicked out, and the proposed directive, which had already been watered down by the Commission, was further diluted by the Council and the European Parliament, so that for example they are still allowed to have corporate logos on packs, which is very important to them.

SMcG: You divide part of your book into chapters each of which deals with a specific sector: apart from tobacco, you list finance, armaments, foodstuffs, oil and chemicals. Could you identify specific pieces of legislation which have been influenced to the detriment of public health or wellbeing, and perhaps say a little about how this was achieved?

DC: Let’s take climate change, which is clearly a consequence of capitalism and needs an anticapitalist solution. BP and other oil giants, however, convinced the EU that you need Market Based Instruments, MBIs, such as the Emissions Trading Scheme, the ETS, which is what we actually got, and which was based on BP’s internal system. Former BP chief Peter Sutherland was an advisor to the Commission on this.

Or the arms industry which has designed secret research programmes in close cooperation with the EU-funded Horizon 2020, and which is involved in the Commission’s corporate-dominated advisory expert groups, an involvement which led to the foundation of the European Defence Agency. The militarisation of the EU, of its frontiers and its treatment of migrants are also part of this. EU border agency Frontex was seen as a likely customer.

SMcG: Free Trade Agreements enable the EU to export its neoliberal programme, as you note in your chapter entitled ‘The Malign Legacy of Peter Mandelson’. Could you say briefly how you see this working?

DC: Look at the trade talks currently taking place between the EU and US, at the preparatory work for those talks, the strategic thinking that led to them. The key fights surround aspects of the proposed Trans-Atlantic agreement that would destroy the last vestiges of European democracy: a binding dispute resolution mechanism which would be entirely outside the normal system of law, staffed by pro-corporate judges presiding over a specialised court which would have the power to overturn laws or policies determined by democratically-elected parliaments, in the event that these measures are adjudged to constitute barriers to trade and investment. Pass a law restricting polluting activities or strengthening workers’ rights and you could find it thrown out.

We’re looking at what they term regulatory convergence, an innocent-sounding term for turning us into a carbon copy of the US. The temporary ban on certain pesticides has seen bee numbers increase, but Syngenta and Monsanto are complaining about the ban and under this system, under regulatory convergence, scope for such measures would be severely restricted. There’s plenty of other examples of this kind of thing, where this and other trade agreements are undermining democracy.

Steve McGiffen is editor of Spectrezine where this article first appeared. Read other articles by Steve.