Over 2,200 people from the corporate world, governments and EU institutions as well as a handful of NGO representatives attended the second European Business Summit, 6-8 June in Brussels. The official theme was "Sustainable development in an enlarged Europe", but the main demand coming from this year's EBS was for a further boost in the powers of the European Commission in order to speed up neoliberal reforms in the EU. The Commission was not only present in large numbers but effectively co-organised the event.
According to the organisers, the EBS is the "most important European dialogue between leading business people and policy makers". In common with the first EBS, in June 2000, the event was hosted by the Belgian employers' federation FEB and the European umbrella group UNICE, in close cooperation with the European Commission.1 No less than eight Commissioners participated in debates during the Summit. It brought together "a large audience from the political and economic world and from civil society for a dialogue on a better and wider Europe."2 If you think it all sounds a lot like the World Economic Forum, the exclusive annual gathering of global leaders in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, you'd be right. Both gatherings share two key functions: promoting the corporate spin on key political issues and providing the business and political elite with an opportunity for high-level networking.3
"The core objective of the summit is to promote effective dialogue and maximise meeting opportunities," reads the EBS website.4 And indeed every effort had been made to maximise possibilities for informal get-togethers. A large "Exhibition and Networking Village" filled the centre of the conference hall, with over 100 stands run by corporations, think tanks, PR firms, Eastern European governments, and a few NGOs. In return for paying over €2,000 to register, industry participants received a list with contact details of all European Commission and government officials, to enable them "to contact these persons directly and to arrange a meeting in advance," during the EBS.5  Despite many similarities with Davos, this conference hall in a grey industrial area on the northern edge of Brussels lacked the same feeling of exclusivity. In contrast to the prestigious, invitation-only World Economic Forum, at the EBS any business person willing to pay the astronomical entrance fee was welcome. Actually very few in the schmoozing crowds were CEOs, but the EBS organisers did their best to make them feel important anyway.
The EU enlargement theme was ever present at this year's EBS. In debates, workshops and exhibitions, Central and Eastern European countries waiting for EU membership hoped to convince EU corporations that they offered attractive local investment opportunities. The industry lobby groups behind the EBS used enlargement as yet another argument for a more effective (read: centralised) EU decision-making process to implement the corporate agenda.
Gerhard Cromme, chairman of the European Roundtable of Industrialists (ERT), said it most clearly in a hard-hitting speech in the final plenary. Cromme argued that the enlargement of the EU adds further urgency to the EU's 'Lisbon' process (which aims to make the EU the most competitive economic bloc in the global economy by 2010). Cromme, who is CEO of Thyssen-Krupp complained that "key reforms for Lisbon are waiting to be approved and implemented because the EU transition belt is snapping," and mentioned the pace of labour market deregulation as an example.6 In order to make it "easier to take decisions and tackle the high-cost economy", the ERT wants a "radical overhaul of decision-making processes," boosting the powers of the European Commission. Cromme demanded "clear and predictable decision-making - for this we want a strong body, at the centre of Union life." He announced that the ERT will work hard to influence the European Convention, the body preparing the draft of a new EU treaty, that might get the status of an EU constitution.
Former Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, vice-president of the European Convention, spoke just after Cromme and welcomed the involvement of the ERT and other players. Dehaene said the convention will "define the EU in the context of globalisation," and enable it "to play a role in global governance."7 Dehaene's vision of a more streamlined EU decision-making process enabling the EU to act as a global superpower fits neatly with the reforms promoted by the ERT.
The European Convention, consisting of 113 politicians from the 15 EU member states, as well as the Central and Eastern European candidate countries, will produce a report by March 2003. The recommendations of the convention will be the starting point for negotiations between EU governments on a new EU treaty, to be signed at an intergovernmental conference (IGC) in 2004. A key issue discussed in the Convention is the division of power between the European Commission and the Council of Ministers. Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and other government leaders are pushing for expanded powers for a new high-profile president of the EU Council. Commission President Prodi is demanding further powers for his institution over the areas where it still faces limitations (such as justice, home affairs and foreign affairs). Prodi fears that a high-profile Council President will undermine the Commission's powers. To regain momentum, Prodi - assisted by Trade Commissioner Lamy - is now working on a far-reaching internal reform of the Commission, transferring more power to an inner-circle of Commissioners and particularly the EC president.8 Needless to say, the two possibilities dominating the Convention talks are like a choice between pest and cholera: they will do nothing to solve the EU's democratic deficit.
The ERT, meanwhile, is unswerving in its support for the European Commission in the ongoing power struggle. In a speech to the European Convention a few weeks after the EBS, Morris Tabaksblat, chairman of publishing giant Reed Elsevier and head of the ERT's working group on European governance, said "current criticisms against the Commission are damaging and risk hindering Europe's efforts to become more competitive."9 The Lisbon goal of "turning Europe into the most competitive society is certainly not being helped by a cumbersome decision-making process [and] threatens to make it even more cumbersome," said Tabaksblat.10
The ERT's devoted support for the European Commission is remarkably clear, at a time when rightwing neoliberal forces have taken power in the majority of EU countries, most recently the Netherlands, France and Denmark. Although it looks like the EU will be run by governments with extremely business-friendly agendas for years to come, the ERT rejects any attempt to "re-nationalise" Commission powers. Corporate interests, the ERT thinks, are still better served by a strong Commission, operating beyond the unpredictable realities of national politics.
"Taking place only a few months before the Johannesburg United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development, the European Business Summit wants to explain and explore how the business world is contributing to sustainable development'" UNICE President Georges Jacobs explained in the invitation to the EBS.11 In reality, 'sustainable development' was a popular phrase for corporate speech-writers at the EBS, but was hardly a substantial theme. At the rare occasions that the lofty rhetoric became more concrete, the EBS organisers repeated their well-known defensive positions. Commenting on the Johannesburg summit, UNICE President Jacobs said "business supports sustainable development, but it needs a place at the table." Jacobs used every opportunity at the EBS to reject what he described as "regulatory intervention by technicians," and promoted industry-friendly 'solutions' such as self-regulation and voluntary measures.12
Also in a special paper on sustainable development written for the EBS, UNICE spoke out against "traditional 'command and control' regulation'," but said it was "willing to play its role in developing well-designed economic instruments capable of delivering environmental progress." Again UNICE stressed "the options of self-regulation and agreements," but claimed that ecological taxes are not part of "the family of 'market instruments'".13
Adding to the overdose of shallow 'sustainable development' rhetoric, this year's EBS made heavy use of the presence of a handful of NGOs to boost its credentials. According to the organisers, the EBS was all about "dialogue" and "building bridges." At the first EBS, in June 2000, some 1,500 people demonstrated against what they saw as an undemocratic get-together of the European corporate elite and eurocrats.14 The image problems arising from these protests might explain why the PR strategy for this year's EBS was put in the hands of "knowledge partner" Weber-Shandwick. This global PR giant is one of the forces behind the recent boom in corporate use of 'dialogue' and 'partnerships' in dealing with critics in 'civil society'. Weber-Shandwick is specialised in "pan-European corporate communications campaigns, aimed at enhancing reputations, reaching out to multiple stakeholders and influencing the environment in which public policy decisions are made."15 Showing that he'd listened carefully to the spin doctors' advice, FEB president Vansteenkiste opened the conference with a speech which referred to the EBS as "a genuine forum in which all the parties concerned can share their experiences".16 As "a forum for dialogue", the EBS was to be "unencumbered by continual dogmatic clashes between globalists and anti-globalists, environmentalists and industrialists," Vansteenkiste stressed.17
In reality the "constructive dialogue between enterprise and civil society" meant nothing more than inviting a handful of politically acceptable Brussels-based NGOs to attend the EBS and adding a few of NGO-speakers to the programme.18 Among the handpicked "civil society" representatives were the usual suspects at such dialogue events: ETUC General-Secretary Emilio Gabaglio, Jim Murray of the European consumer platform BEUC, Tony Long of WWF and Giampiero Alhadeff of Solidar, none of whom are known for their confrontational attitude to the corporate world.19 People with a more substantial critique of the corporate agenda, for instance on international trade issues, were absent. As a sign of their good intentions, the EBS offered a special reduced participation fee for NGOs of €1.500,00 (excl. VAT).
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was another favoured term ringing in the air at the EBS. Indeed, CSR Europe was the most visible business grouping at this year's EBS, with the largest (and most expensive) stand of all.20 CSR Europe, led by 71-year old corporate veteran Etienne Davignon,21 consists of around 60 member corporations, including BP, Shell, ENI, Nestle, Unilever, Danone, BT, ABB, Citigroup, Nike, Levi and Suez.22 Apart from flooding the EBS with promotional material, the ambitious group organised a press conference featuring Davignon and PR guru Paul Adamson. Journalists were offered 'training' on "the stories behind corporate social responsibility." At this event, CSR Europe presented a report on the rapidly growing and increasingly favourable media coverage of CSR.23 Despite the more positive coverage of corporate activity, corporations still feel the media is "mostly interested in exposing failure, catching corporates out or discovering double standards," CSR Europe told journalists at the EBS.24
CSR Europe's mission is to "help companies to achieve profitability, sustainable growth and human progress by placing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in the mainstream of business practice".25 However, the group's activities are far from limited to the noble aim of encouraging and assisting companies to behave more socially and environmentally responsible. It is also a lobby group working full-steam to influence EU policies, for instance the decision-making on an EU framework on CSR. Rather than breaking with the reactionary line of lobby groups like UNICE, CSR Europe consistently fails to take a progressive position. In its response to the European Commission's first proposal for an EU CSR framework (the 2001 Green Paper), CSR Europe warned against "force-fitting a prescriptive or mandatory framework," and called on the EU "to adopt a flexible approach in promoting CSR", based on "proactive voluntary contributions".26
CSR Europe was one of the corporate lobby groups involved in a successful lobbying offensive to discourage the European Parliament (EP) from proposing mandatory reporting on corporate social and environmental performance.27 UK Labour MEP Richard Howitt had criticised the voluntary approach of the Commission's proposal as "fundamentally flawed," by treating CSR as an "optional extra add-on to normal business activities."28 However, at the end of May, the conservative majority in the EP rejected or watered down most the amendments coming from Socialist and Green MEPs. An EP majority said that voluntary initiatives promoting CSR should "be preferred to legislation as a more effective and efficient way of achieving measurable outcomes."29 To back up this lobbying victory, soon after this CSR Europe, UNICE and the ERT sent a joint open letter to Commission president Prodi to support the EP vote.30 The letter rejects "standardised approaches, specific certification procedures or specific reporting requirements." According to the corporate groupings, going beyond the voluntary approach "could prove harmful to the competitiveness of European companies and thus the achievement of the Lisbon goals."
CSR Europe's lobbying efforts show clearly how embracing 'corporate social responsibility' is not simply a matter of business having seen the light. CSR is about controlling policy outcomes by going on the offensive. While there are undoubtedly many people with good intentions in the world of CSR, it is clear that many corporations hope to steer clear from undesired legislation by taking CSR initiatives in order to be seen as voluntarily responding to demands from society.
Eight European Commissioners attended the EBS, and at least 65 other high-level Commission officials mingled with the corporate lobbyists.31 But support for the event went much further: the EC also co-funded, and in fact co-organised, the event. According to FEB President Luc Vansteenkiste, the EC "also played a major role in organising the proceedings."32 Vansteenkiste called the relationship "an excellent example of constructive dialogue between political and economic decision-makers." Also the theme 'Sustainable development in an enlarged Europe', "was chosen after consultation between the organisers and the European Commission".33 At the end of the event, the organisers announced that preparations for next EBS, in 2004 have already started, again "with the close collaboration of the European Commission".34
The Commission's involvement in the EBS is yet another example of its unhealthy involvement in strategic alliances with big business. Of course, a high-profile gathering of thousands of business people who demand more power to the Commission and also insist on speeding up the neoliberal reforms which the Commission yearns for, is a dream-come-true for power brokers like Prodi and Lamy. But what might make sense from their power-centred perspective is in fact deeply opportunist and an insult to democracy. Three years after taking over from the scandal-ridden Santer Commission, Prodi's team continues in the same technocratic, corporate-biased dead-end trail. The Commission's inappropriate involvement in a corporate power display like the European Business Summit shows just why it would be a disaster if the institution was granted more powers in the upcoming EU constitution. It makes abundantly clear that challenging the Commission's ongoing abuse of its power should be a priority for the movements struggling for democratic, ecologically sustainable and socially just societies.