Corporate Lobbying from Rent Free European Parliament Offices - will MEPs allow the EBPS to stay?
Corporate Europe Observatory, October 2008
In April the European Parliament's Conference of Presidents decided to expel the European Business and Parliament Scheme (EBPS) from its offices in the Parliament buildings in Brussels. Six months later it is unclear whether the EBPS will indeed leave or whether it has successfully fought back to defend its privileges.
The EBPS is a creation of The International Association of Business and Parliament, a non-profit organisation set up in the UK in 1977 to "foster mutual understanding; transparent and effective relationships between business and parliamentarians with the ultimate objective of informing economic policy and legislation for the benefit of the whole national economy." The EBPS was established in 1999 as an attempt to apply the same model at the level of the European Parliament. In September 2007 they were given rent-free office space inside the European Parliament (EP) and issued with EP email addresses and telephone numbers, paid for by the Parliament. The Parliament also pays phone bills and some travel and accommodation expenses. Earlier this year, MEP and civil society groups expressed deep concern about the EBPS operating from within the heart of the European Parliament building for the benefit of corporate members. The EBPS' presence and activities, the critics argued, raises serious questions about the European Parliament's ability to prevent excessive and sometimes wrong-headed corporate influence on its policy-making.
The EBPS has 26 corporate members, including, nuclear energy firm Areva, tobacco giant BAT, SUEZ, British Petroleum, Microsoft, RWE, Veolia, BBVA Group and Telefonica. To become a member, corporations with more than 250 employees pay an annual membership fee of 15,000 euro. In return they are given the opportunity to invest their time and expertise into EBPS' programmes. These include three or four annual sessions with MEPs, opportunities to host MEPs or senior officials as "company attachments or business fellowships" to give MEPs and officials a chance to better understand the impact EU legislation and regulations have on companies. In its marketing materials, the EBPS says it provides its corporate members with a: "Better understanding and recognition of your company and sector(s) it represents among European legislators", and an "Opportunity to engage in informing the economic policy and legislation through the non-lobbying, non-partisan and transparent mechanism".
In a letter to Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering, Green MEPs stated that: "we consider that the organisation's claim to be 'non-lobbying' not to be true in reality." They drew attention to an invitation MEPs recently received from the EBPS to attend activites in Peru run by four members of the EBPS (Telefonica, BBVA Group, BP and SUEZ), coinciding with the summit of the European Parliament and Latin American Parliaments. The Green MEPs point out that "the companies [...] have been severely criticised for some of their practices in Peru and other Latin American countries. Therefore, we believe that such 'information' events will most likely be interpreted as a positive public relations exercise to foster public goodwill for their company."
There is indeed good reasons to be sceptical about the EBPS' claims that its activities are 'non-lobbying'. Take EBPS member SUEZ as an example: in Peru, SUEZ is involved in the controversial Camisea Gas Field project in the Amazon region; the company's pipeline violates indigenous rights and large-scale gas leaks have caused injuries and serious environmental damage. Elsewhere, SUEZ' private water division has come under heavy criticism for failing to fulfill contractual obligations to improve access to clean water and sanitation and it has been forced to leave cities in Bolivia and Argentina. Are we really expected to believe that when guiding MEPs through its facilities, SUEZ will in a non-partisan and educational manner mention these failings?
Likewise, when MEPs tour an educational centre in Peru to see Telefonica's social action program working to get children out of work and back into schools, can we believe that Telefonica's representative will mention the Bolivian government has just had to renationalise Telefonica's part-owned subsidiary Euro Telecom Italia N.V., because it was accused of not investing enough in rural areas or in connecting schools to the internet? Or perhaps he or she will mention how the company is accused of widespread violations of labour laws in Colombia and other countries where it is operating? Peru's government recently declared that Telefonica had not fulfilled its contractual obligations with the government and their customers because its services were below legal standards.
Despite the Conference of Presidents' decision, EPBS is in no hurry to leave the Parliament. In June, it held its first 'CEOs dinner', a lavish gala event bringing together corporate executives and MEPs in the President's Dining Room on the 12th floor of the European Parliament. The event was hosted by Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering and included CEOs from tobacco giant BAT, Munich Airport and Microsoft. Since then, the organisation has continued with its activities as if nothing had happened. In September, it wrote to MEPs known to be working on energy issues offering them "an educational programme" including visits to Suez Gaz de France and other energy firms.
The decision of the Conference of Presidents in April was to be confirmed by the Queastors (who are responsible for administrative and financial matters within Parliament). The Queastors, however, transferred the task of deciding about the EBPS' future to the Parliament's Bureau. According to a note from the Parliament's Secretary-General, the EBPS has agreed to vacate its offices by the end of 2008 but the Bureau has postponed its decision until the next meeting. The Bureau, however, also asked the Secretary-General to "present at a forthcoming meeting an additional note clarifying the relationship of this Scheme with the European Parliament". There is reason to fear that the EBPS has successfully lobbied to defend its presence and privileges inside the Parliament.
Solvay & the EBPSSolvay, an international chemical and pharmaceutical group and member of the EBPS had the following to say about its reasons for joining the scheme: "Although Solvay is a reasonably large company, [...] it is not always easy to get in touch with MEPs since they have very tight time schedules." "Since the EBPS ensures an independent, non-partisan and non-lobbying framework, we expect MEPs to be more open and receptive for our explanations and arguments." "[The EBPS] increases the likelihood of quality regulation meeting the needs of busines and society".
Statement by Mr. Gerard Mestrallet, CEO of Suez, about the EBPS"SUEZ believes that transparent communication is key. One of our goal is to contribute to public debate by increasing knowledge of our businesses. SUEZ serves millions of Europeans daily. Members of the European Parliament represents 500 000 million citizens. It is both our role to establish a constructive and lasting dialogue to respond to Europeans' expectations. This is why SUEZ has joined the EBPS. I am proud we are among the very first company members of the scheme."
- European Business and Parliament Scheme marketing brochure.
- "EU Parliament to loosen ties with business group due to concerns of improper influence", AP, April 25 2008..
- EBPS Company Dossier April 2008.
- Letter from Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament to EP President Hans-Gert Poettering.
- Shykles, O., The Story of a Dutch Letterbox which could cost Bolivia a Fortune, Corporate Europe Observatory website, February 2008.