By Vicky Cann
When Jean-Claude Juncker became European Commission chief in 2014, he made many big promises, including that commissioners would “ensure an appropriate balance” in the lobbyists they meet.
Campaigners could have been forgiven for hoping this would redress the EU’s hefty skew in favour of corporate lobby meetings.
But five years on it is clear that despite some tinkering at the edges, excessive corporate influence remains a problem.
Despite Juncker’s pledge, there has been little evidence of a balancing of interest groups.
Instead, corporate lobbies have continued to enjoy excellent access to commission staff, securing 70 percent of all meetings with the institution’s top 300 officials.
Trade policy is an especially stark example of business lobbies trumping public interest groups in terms of access.
On the revived EU-US trade talks, for instance, every meeting with an NGO or trade union was matched by 10 meetings between EU negotiators and corporate lobbyists.
The gas industry also spends more on lobbying EU officials and has more staff than green NGOs do in Brussels, pushing the idea that burning gas is “clean”, despite the climate crisis.
But the numbers are just part of the story.
Traces of corporate influence on the Juncker commission policies are the other, more important, part.
The high number of revolving door cases between EU commission staff and financial services firms, for instance, makes it hard to say who is regulating whom.
Could that be one reason why Juncker never really delivered on promises to regulate the banking sector even 10 years after the financial crisis?
Big pharmaceutical firms also managed to score business goals in Juncker’s Brussels, amid a PR offensive and membership in EU commission advisory groups, which helped delivered corporate-friendly intellectual property rules and monopoly pricing for medicines.
Many other decisions by the Juncker commission also bear the fingerprints of corporate lobbying.
And some of them helped to cement corporate influence in the EU decision-making system.
Under Juncker, the commission pursued a “Better Regulation” agenda, giving corporate lobbyists new opportunities to push economic priorities over social and environmental ones at the drafting stage of the legislative process.
The net results have so far been weaker rules on chemicals regulation, workplace health, and vehicle emissions testing.
In the same vein, the Juncker commission also pursued a “regulatory cooperation” plan on international trade.
Much to the delight of lobbyists such as BusinessEurope and the US Chamber of Commerce, who hope this fusing of trading partners’ rulebooks will help big companies change EU laws in the context of free-trade deals.
This type of ‘regulatory cooperation’ is set to be a priority in US-EU trade talks.
And the finance lobby also wants to see it featured in a post-Brexit EU-UK trade deal.
Meanwhile, new policy proposals and legislative reviews are set to become subject to a new “innovation principle”, which takes aim at health and environment rules that might hamper business ‘innovation’- while not even defining what is considered innovative.
Given that the commission’s research department picked up the concept from lobby groups such as BusinessEurope and the European Risk Forum (whose members consist of the fossil fuel and chemicals industries), this is perhaps not surprising.
The actions of the outgoing commission have spoken louder than the words of its president at the beginning of his term.
Juncker’s commission failed to balance lobby meetings of top officials, ignored revolving door scandals, and did not come clean on contacts with the tobacco lobby.
It too often failed to protect the public interest.
The incoming president of the commission Ursula Von der Leyen and her team must do better.
By challenging industry’s privileged relationship with EU officials, by being especially cautious of toxic sectors such as the fossil fuels industry, and by properly implementing independent ethics and stricter transparency rules, Ms Von der Leyen can – and must – show she is more concerned about the public interest in policy-making than her predecessor was.