The McDonald’s-demolishing French farmer hasn’t given up on activism: even as an MEP, José Bové can’t resist joining struggles all over Europe. And when he’s back in Brussels he’s actively researching the activities of lobbyists. His book Hold-up in Brussels gives us a new look at how multinationals try to push their own agenda in the EU’s capital, and how the man with the European Parliament’s most impressive moustache works on uncovering their machinations.
After only a few pages, we already learn how the GMO-lobby has managed to get a foot in the door of EU institutions.
Toxic and dubious
The first story deals with the genetically modified Amflora potato (a product of the biotechnological multinational BASF), whose DNA was altered so that it only produces one particular kind of starch, to serve the needs of the paper and textile industry. Even if someone isn’t as suspicious of GMOs as Bové, the institutions and the studies involved in the licensing of these genetically modified products are often more than dubious.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), for example, didn’t seem to care much about conflicts of interest: the former EFSA Management Board Chair Diana Banati has been working simultaneously for EFSA and the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). This latter is the institute that produces some of the most highly valued foot safety studies; and on its website, among the members of its board of trustees you can find people affiliated with the biotech giant Monsanto, or multinationals like the Coca-Cola and Nestlé, who would have probably profited if EFSA closed an eye every now and then (Banati had to resign in 2012). A very disturbing matter, taking into consideration that many of the decisions taken in Brussels can determine what kinds of foods can end up on our plates.
Bové brings up a similar example later in his book, mentioning that an independent study aiming to prove that neonicotinoid pesticides had nothing to do with the decline in bee populations was produced by a think tank called The Humboldt Forum for Food and Agriculture e. V., an organisation supported by Bayer and Syngenta, two groups actively lobbying for the use of pesticides.
20 lobbyists for each MEP
Brussels is one of the greatest lobbying centres in the world. According to Bové there are at least 15,000 lobbyists working in Brussels; given that the European Parliament has 751 MEPs, this means that there are at least 20 lobbyists for each MEP. (Others would say this number is closer to 30,000, meaning 40 lobbyists for each MEP.)
Of course, we can’t say that all of these lobbyists are working 24/7 on pushing some corporate agenda. Some of them just sit at their desks all day and do boring office tasks, write emails outlining their clients’ standpoints on issues, or produce background documents that help explain complex issues in a clear, concise and very biased way.
Others, on the other hand, have their own badges that give them free entrance to the European Parliament, and they regularly visit high level officials of the European Commission. Some may even have old childhood friends in the institutions, or might have worked at some point of their career in the EU administration. To limit their influence on EU policymaking, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has pledged to impose tougher lobbying-regulations, but thus far the new lobby transparency register hasn’t appeared to convince the wider masses. “Two steps forward, one step back” was the verdict of transparency campaigners.
The tobacco lobby
The urgency of the need for good regulation is shown by the most disturbing story in Bové’s book, which deals with the former Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy John Dalli: the new European tobacco regulations were almost in their final stage at the Commission, when Dalli suddenly resigned. As it turned out, it was Commission-president José Manuel Barroso who told him to leave office as his integrity became severely damaged: OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud Office investigated Dalli because he allegedly asked a lobbyist to pay him a EUR 60 million bribe in order to lift an exemption on the Swedish oral tobacco, called snus.
Bové explains at length how he believes the tobacco industry set up a trap for Dalli: the Commissioner allegedly met with tobacco lobbyists twice, first he listened to their demands, and the second time he told them how much money he wanted in exchange for the favour. According to Bové, the second meeting didn’t even take place.
So why did Dalli fall under suspicion? According to Bové, this can be explained in part by the fact that there is an agreement between OLAF and the tobacco industry (which expires next year), meaning that OLAF receives annual payments from tobacco manufacturers. This in turn calls into question whether the office can make objective decisions on such a delicate issue, as the snus-producer Swedish Match had been lobbying hand in hand with Philip Morris to promote tobacco products in the EU (with quite some success, as the Guardian reported: after spending millions on lobbying, Philip Morris managed to delay the vote in the European Parliament). Additionally, these ties increased the probability that OLAF would launch an investigation without having sufficient proof.
The revolving door
Another important player in pushing big tobacco’s agenda was Michel Petite, a legal counsel who helped Swedish Match make its case. Petite used to work for the Commission before, and has dealt a great deal with tobacco-related issues. His knowledge was therefore crucial when it came to determining which officials needed to be lobbied at what stage of the policymaking procedure.
Petite is one of the best examples of the so-called, “revolving door effect”, meaning that senior officials (or politicians) with a vast knowledge of policymaking procedures – and an even greater social network – can find themselves quite easily on the other side, by taking a well-payed position at a lobby-firm or even starting their own company. Bové mentions quite a number of these people by name.
And if this wasn’t enough, Bové also tells us that the power of lobbyists is further strengthened by the EU member states, as many of them resort to the help of lobbying organisations when it comes to pushing their own national agenda. The Polish presidency of the EU has, for example, paid EUR 500,000 to the lobby firm Burson-Marsteller to convince other member states of the benefits of shale gas extraction.
Bové’s book will definitely not increase our love for EU institutions, but may provide more clarity when tackling the democratic deficits in that mysterious construction known as the European Union. And that is badly needed in today’s turbulent times.
An earlier version of this review was published in Hungarian on the blog Kettős Mérce.
José Bové avec la collaboration de Giles Luneau: Hold-up à Bruxelles. Les Lobbies au cœur de L’Europe. La Découverte, 2014.
José Bové: Rablás Brüsszelben. L’Harmattan, 2015.