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Corporate Europe Observer - Issue 7
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European Business Summit: Consolidating Corporate Power

"It's the first time that we will promote Brussels not just as a European bureaucracy but also as a real 'dialogue city' for business and policy-makers." - Didier Malherbe, Managing Director of the European Business Summit[1]

ust one month after the ICC's 33rd World Congress (see article in this issue), 1,000 of Europe's business leaders and officials from EU institutions gathered in Brussels for yet another high profile corporate get-together- this time organised by European employers confederation UNICE, and its Belgian counterpart.[2] Support also came from the European Roundtable of Industrialists (ERT), comprising the heads of 48 of Europe's largest corporations, and the EU Committee of American Chambers of Commerce (AmCham) representing the interests of large US companies with operations in Europe. Meanwhile the conference centre itself was a veritable fortress surrounded by razor wire barricades and a small army of Belgian police prevented the hundreds of protestors assembled outside from reaching the inner sanctum of the Sheraton hotel where corporate Europe met.

Most remarkable about the EBS was the overwhelming support it received from the European Commission. Besides providing part of the funding for the euro 3.5 million event, 9 European Commissioners were in attendance, and a slew of civil servants. [3] According to Didier Malherbe, communications manager for FEB-VBO and chief organiser of the event, "there is a clear message from the political world because it will be the first time that we will have so many members of the European Commission present? the only ones who aren't attending are those whose portfolios are not really relevant to business." [4]

Lisbon follow-up?

The focus of the European Business Summit centred around the same themes of the EU's Lisbon Summit held just three months before in March - namely 'competitiveness', 'innovation' and 'creativity'. In the eyes of many of the organisers and participants, the EBS served as a direct follow-up conference to the Lisbon summit. This was reinforced by Commission President Romano Prodi in a communiqué to the EBS: "We are glad that the business community is responding to this invitation by organising the first European Business Summit. The EBS will be an important event in the post-Lisbon process towards promoting innovation and creativity in Europe." [5] According to UNICE President Georges Jacobs, "This platform has shown the convergence between the priorities defined by the heads of state and government in Lisbon, and the objectives of the business leaders."[6] Given the strong influence which lobby groups such as the European Roundtable of Industrialists (ERT) and UNICE have had in the Lisbon Summit (see ERT-Lisbon article in this issue), it is no surprise that they focused strongly on its main themes.

For the Commission, the EBS provided the industry backing they needed to implement the principle Lisbon commitment - making the European Union the "most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world." [7] In the words of Commissioner Liikanen, "The Lisbon Summit demonstrated the commitment of European leaders. We need to keep the consistency of our action. We need to deliver. The European Business Summit takes place at the right moment. The change needs industry initiatives and support if we are to succeed." [8] For industry, the EBS served as the platform to discuss implementation of the Lisbon resolutions together with European Commissioners and other officials and solidify already cosy relationships between business and EU institutions.

Demystifying 'Innovation' and 'Creativity'

The latest corporate buzzwords of 'innovation' and 'creativity', can be credited to the influence of the European Roundtable of Industrialists (ERT). In November 1998, the ERT's Working Group on Competitiveness, chaired by Solvay's Baron Daniel Janssen, produced a report entitled Job Creation and Competitiveness through Innovation, where the business terms can said to have been first coined. The report describes a global economy in turmoil with an, "irresistible flow of newer, better or cheaper goods and services that is constantly making older products uneconomic or obsolete - along with the jobs attached to them."[9] Adaptation to this process of creative destruction, according to the ERT, must take place at every level of society, within companies of every size, within governments, and within individuals. The report outlined all sorts of ways in which this adaptation needs to happen, essentially calling for a complete dismantling of the modern welfare state. In order to 'compete', the report argues, the European Union needs to do everything it can to foster corporate 'innovation' in order to unlock the 'creative' potential of European industry. Since then, other corporate actors, and now the EU leadership, have adopted the ERT's positive-sounding language. But at the heart of these terms, are the key concepts espoused by the ERT for years now- rapid deregulation, unbridled free markets, and institutional reforms which boost European corporations 'competitiveness on the international stage.

"Chiding the laggards"

In order to meet the new resolutions, the European Council, in Lisbon, outlined a number of initiatives to ensure implementation. Morris Tabaksblat, Chair of the ERT, had nothing but praise for this, in his speech to the EBS, "This gets the wholehearted support of ERT members and of European industry as a whole." [10] Yet despite his praise for the the European Council's initiatives, Tabaksblat announced that the ERT will be undertaking its own measures to evaluate the EU's progress in fulfilling the promises it made in Lisbon. He warned that the ERT would not hesitate to admonish those EU Member States which fail to meet industry demands. In the ERT's classically pedantic style, he declared, "We will set our own benchmarks - to encourage the achievers and to chide, if need be, the laggards among the 15 in the hope that a page has now been turned. Because, you know, Europe doesn't need yet another declaration of intent. We have had enough of them. Europe needs actionable points, to demonstrate that the will to move forward is really there." [11]

To compliment the ERT's own initiatives, UNICE timed the release of its '3rd Benchmarking Report'- covering the main EBS themes of 'innovation' and 'creativity'- to coincide with the event and serve as a background document. [12] The conclusions and structure of the various workshops at the EBS closely mirror those of the report. Background materials for each workshop, included relevant conclusions from both the Lisbon Summit and the UNICE Benchmarking Report. This highly orchestrated and integrated approach to the organisation of the EBS, plus the attendance of some of Europe's most influential politicians, helped to create an atmosphere of an official EU policy-making event.

"Biotechnologies: building consumers' acceptance, "was the provoking title of one of the workshops while another bluntly asked, "How can the legal and regulatory framework be transformed to better support the capacity of companies to innovate?" Other workshop themes covered issues such as 'protecting intellectual property rights', 'deregulation', 'enhancing the flexibility of labour markets', 'taxation', and 'refocusing education'. Many of these themes have been at the heart of activities by groups such as the ERT, UNICE, and others for years. The ERT, for example, has been for over a decade complaining about the inadequacy of the European educational system in preparing "human resources" for industry. [13]

Education: "a market opportunity"?

The fact that the Lisbon Summit adopted "lifelong learning" - a key ERT concept whereby the goal is to retrain workers who are no longer "useful" for the labour market - as part of its restructuring strategy, was very much a point of celebration at the EBS.[14] Despite this, ERT member Gerhard Cromme of ThyssenKrupp was quick to deride the "culture of laziness which continues in the European education system," where students "take liberties to pursue subjects not directly related to industry. Instead they are pursuing subjects which have no practical application." [15] He even went as far as to suggest that all schools be privatised to encourage competition and ensure that schools be subject to market forces, because "schools will respond better to paying customers, just like any other business?" [16]

Increasing industry penetration in the education sector was highlighted as a key step in building an 'innovation culture'. "We cannot leave all activities in the hands of the public sector. The provision of education (especially adult education) is a market opportunity and should be treated as such. This could also help to change social attitudes."[17] European Commissioner for Education & Culture, Viviane Reding, one day after a meeting of European education ministers where many EBS themes were already discussed at length, supported this view. "Public-private partnerships will play a crucial role and - I am sure - will constitute a key factor in our success."[18] Commissioner Reding went on to announce that she will setup a framework for discussion on innovation, "including the creation of a high-level group associating the foremost thinkers of the education and economic worlds, with focus on 'Designing Tomorrow's Education and Training'."[19]

The 'public' as trade barrier

Europeans' diverse social and cultural values are what industry identified as key obstacles to corporate competitiveness. Such values, according to UNICE, "influence government policies, regulatory frameworks, the effectiveness of collaboration between industry and universities, and the availability of risk capital." [20] Many speakers denounced European consumers' slow acceptance of new technologies, particularly biotechnologies, as a key problem. At the workshop on, "Biotechnologies: Building Consumers' Acceptance," Commissioner for Health & Consumer Protection, David Byrne, defined the main problem being that Europeans are, "inadequately informed on biotechnology."[21] He encouraged industry to assist the Commission in spreading information about the benefits of biotechnology, recommending that their focus should be on the national level.[22] It is in this patronising tone about the "public" that Commissioner Byrne, formerly of the powerful corporate lobby group-the International Chamber of Commerce - advocates that industry play a more active role in, "building consumer acceptance." [23]

Offensive behaviour

The workshop on "Supporting Innovation by Protecting Intellectual Property", which included Vladimir Yossifov from the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), called for a Europe-wide 'Community' patent including full recognition of patents on biotechnological inventions. In the workshop, "From the "Vision" to the Winning International Strategy," EU Trade Commissioner Pacal Lamy outlined his belief in an "offensive" European approach to international trade negotiations. "Globalisation in its different forms, global markets, global firms, global risks, increases the importance of the international level for policy making to stimulate innovation and to guarantee its long-term sustainability. The key issue is no longer to only protect ourselves from the others with defensive practices, but to adopt offensive behaviour to build a favourable, opened and legally well structured environment." [24]

The Emergence of the 'Corporate Politician'

The EBS promotes a picture of business and politics being two separate worlds that need to get to know each other better. In reality the distinction between business and EU politics is extremely blurred. Heavyweight corporate personalities attendant at the EBS, such as Viscount Etienne Davignon, Baron Daniel Janssen, Gerhard Cromme, Andrew Buxton, Lord David Simon of Highbury, Morris Tabaksblat and Egil Myklebust, have successfully established themselves as Europe's premier 'corporate politicians'. Far from focusing on the stock performance of their companies, these CEO's and corporate leaders devote much of their time and energy to influencing politics and European legislation.

These 'captains of industry' were key to the success of the EBS. Their stature in the business world coupled with their long quasi-political careers and their charisma, put them on par with some of the most high profile officials in attendance. With the steady transformation of Europe into a ?shareholder society?, and the consistent supercedence of business concerns over other concerns such as those of the environment or society in mainstream political discourse, the rise of the corporate politician will only continue to increase.

Many Commissioners, meanwhile, are increasingly obsessed by business interests. Perhaps they are responding to what EBS chief, Malherbe, describes as the EU?s, "knowledge gap" in understanding business concerns.[25] He quotes that, "In EU countries, nearly two-thirds of new legislation is actually initiated at the European level. Of this, 70 per cent affects business. Yet a huge 80 per cent of EU policy-makers have no private company experience. It is clearly a situation that needs to be redressed." [26] The EBS, according to its organisers, was just the forum to "bring the worlds of business and policy makers closer together." [27]

Lamy, still beaming from his recent trip to China where he managed to gain significant concessions for the European telecoms industry among other things, received much praise for his efforts in promoting European corporate trade interests globally from his fellow panellists Pierre-Alain De Smedt of Renault, and ERT members, Baron Daniel Janssen of Solvay, and Cor Boonstra of Philips. Janssen is the Chair of the ERT Working Group on Competitiveness, which issued the influential report "Job Creation and Competitiveness through Innovation" in 1998. It was then that the idea for the EBS first arose and was warmly received by former Commission President Jacques Santer, as it adopted the main themes of the ERT report - namely 'innovation' and 'competitiveness' as the main themes for the event.[28] Janssen also made numerous references to the ERT's close involvement with the Commission in the preparation of the Lisbon Summit, and championed the outcomes as a "triumph for industry and European competitiveness." [29] (see ERT-Lisbon article in this issue).

Business Impact Assessments

Despite the already extremely close relations that industry has with the EU institutions, Janssen called for "better cooperation and improved communication" so that industry can be more, "involved in the legislative process at an early stage." [30] These sentiments were echoed by Commissioner Liikanen who earlier in the day proposed that, "All new regulations at national and European level should be screened to assess their impact on business, especially on small enterprises." [31] Liikanen also supported one of the central corporate demands of voluntary agreements and non-binding codes of conduct by saying that the Commission should, "always bear in mind the golden rule: Self-regulation always when possible, regulation only when necessary." [32]

EBS - a corporate 'pep rally'

Commission President Romano Prodi's closing remarks scored many points with corporate leaders. He called for, "a more business-friendly environment" and parroted the corporate ambition of a Europe transformed, "from State-imposed regulation to responsible self-regulation and co-regulation." He also called for greater participation and support from industry in order to make this transformation happen more rapidly, stating that there, "is plenty of scope for joint action to draw up responsible European and international rules." [33]

The EBS was deemed a huge success by the organisers. "Finally, Europe is becoming serious about the core challenge it faces in a globalising world," said a jubilant Morris Tabaksblat. Many of the participants and organisers referred to the direct interaction with civil servants as the key to the EBS's success. "The EBS showed that personal contacts are still very important for setting in motion the processes of change. The possibility of having a direct dialogue with 9 members of the European Commission clearly had an added value," said FEB-VBO head, Gui de Vaucleroy. Garry Parker of the European small and medium-sized enterprise lobby group, UEAPME, saw the event as a pep rally for European business commenting that, "The business community needs to boost itself every now and again." [34]

Yet not all was rosy for the corporate participants of the EBS. The Summit was held in a Sheraton Hotel in Brussels, ringed by razor wire barricades, special police forces, armoured personnel transports equipped with powerful water cannons, guard dogs, personal bodyguards and secret service officers, all preventing entry to some1,000 protestors from Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. The protesters were dismissed by the organisers as "ignorant" attempting also to paint them as, "violent militants who just want to attack somebody." [35] According to many of the activists however, they were there to challenge the cosy relations between industry and the EU institutions and the neo-liberal, business-friendly policies they promote. The EBS, for many, was a concrete example of that relationship.

A statement by a coalition of groups in Europe opposed to this corporate-state alliance and particularly the role that both actors have played in pushing for socially and environmentally harmful trade and investment policies, was issued to coincide with the event. Some 100 groups from all over Europe declared their opposition to the EU's push for a new round of negotiations in the World Trade Organisation (WTO). In particular, they singled out the role of "transnational corporations through such groupings as the Union of Industrial and Employers Confederations of Europe (UNICE) and the Transatlantic Business Dialogue (TABD) aided by the lack of transparency and democracy within the European institutions." [36] The groups, including ATTAC, World Development Movement, Red-Green Alliance, Oxfam Solidarity, Coordination Paysanne Europeene, Friends of the Earth groups, Corporate Europe Observatory, and others, committed themselves to, "work on all levels to achieve a turnaround from the present neoliberal path, towards an alternative economic system that protects the basic rights of people and the environment." [37]

Pascal Lamy, when asked about the content of the statement, which particularly singles himself out as a key actor in pushing the proposed "Millennium Round", dismissed the charges reasserting his belief that a Millennium Round "is the only way of ensuring that we get the best possible deal to meet all of our shared objectives."[38] UNICE's Georges Jacobs replied defensively that the EBS was an "open dialogue" and that "all stakeholders are represented here today." [39] A look at the participants list however, reveals that the vast majority of EBS participants were either from industry groups, individual corporations, PR and consultancy groups, and the European Commission. A handful of academics and one union member [40], can hardly be considered representing all of European civil society.

The EBS will now be institutionalised as a regular bi-annual event. A follow-up process was declared which will include a detailed report and list of recommendations to be presented to the European Commission. It is still too early to gauge just how much impact the EBS has had on the EU institutions and their policies, however, judging from the rhetoric of the Commissioners at the event, the EU ship is sailing in smooth corporate waters. The onus is now on the activists and groups who have committed themselves to challenging corporate power... to rock the boat.

Protestors outside the Sheraton Hotel where the EBS was held. Photo by Solidair


CEO prepared a number of fact sheets on the EBS for the event. English and Castellano versions can be accessed from our website at: http://www.xs4all.nl/~ceo/ebs/


1. Hoar, Rebecca. "Raising the European Standard." EuroBusiness June 2000, Vol. 2, Issue 1, Page148. |Back to Text|

2. UNICE is the Union of Industrial and Employer's Confederations of Europe. FEB-VBO (Federation des Enterprises Belgique - Verbond van Belgische Ondernemingen) is the Belgian member federation of UNICE. Corporate sponsors of the event included Arthur D. Little, Microsoft, Proctor & Gamble, TotalFina, Interbrew, Nortel Networks, Belgacom, UPS, Renault, Randstad, Sabena, EurActiv.com, EuroBusiness, Financial Times Group, De Financieel Economische Tijd, La Libre Belgique, International Trends, Xeikon, Barco, Lernhout & Hauspie, and Bank Brussels Lambert (BBL - part of the ING Group). Government sponsorship came from the European Commission and the Brussels-Capital region, as well as the Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, King Albert II, Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mayor of Brussels, and the European Parliament.|Back to Text|

3. Erkki Liikanen (Enterprise and Information Society), Pascal Lamy (Trade), Romano Prodi (President), Viviane Reding (Education and Culture), Margot Wallström (Environment), Mario Monti (Internal Market), David Byrne (Health & Consumer Protection), Phillipe Busquin (Research), Anna Diamantopoulou (Employment & Social Affairs).|Back to Text|

4. Hoar, Rebecca. "Raising the European Standard." EuroBusiness June 2000, Vol. 2, Issue 1, Page148.|Back to Text|

5. "Commissioner-voorzitter Prodi over de EBS." Bulletin VBO. June 2000. Page 21.|Back to Text|

6. Jacobs, Georges. Speech at the EBS, 10 June 2000.|Back to Text|

7. Presidency Conclusions, Lisbon European Council, 23-24 March 2000.|Back to Text|

8. Commissioner Erkki Liikanen (Enterprise and Information Society), speech to the European Business Summit, June 9, 2000.|Back to Text|

9. ERT, "Job Creation and Competitiveness through Innovation, Brussels, November 1998.|Back to Text|

10. Tabaksblat, Morris. Chair of the European Roundtable of Industrialists (ERT). Speech to the European Business Summit, 10 June 2000.|Back to Text|

11. Ibid.|Back to Text|

12. Previous Benchmarking Reports covered 'competitiveness' and 'entrepreneurship'.|Back to Text|

13. European Roundtable of Industrialists. "Education and European Competence", 1989.|Back to Text|

14. Ibid. The fact that the ERT identified such restructuring goals, which are just now being adopted as policy by the European Union, already in the late 80's, is unique to this group of Europe's 'captains of industry' and an example of their ability to develop a very detailed long-term vision of the neo-liberal project.|Back to Text|

15. Cromme, Gerhard. Comments made at the European Business Summit workshop entitled: "Nurturing Innovators Through Education" Friday 9 June 2000.|Back to Text|

16. Ibid.|Back to Text|

17. ibid.|Back to Text|

18. Reding, Viviane. Presentation at the European Business Summit workshop entitled: "Education: The New Challenges". Saturday, 10 June 2000. Reding had just attended a meeting of Education ministers the day before, in which the main topics of discussion included: "Make Europe a lifelong learning space", and "Challenges and future objectives of education systems in the knowledge society."|Back to Text|

19. Ibid. "The topics of discussion will not only be about ICT, but will also have to concentrate on the building up of structures for life-long-learning."|Back to Text|

20. UNICE. "Stimulating Creativity and Innovation in Europe". 3rd UNICE Benchmarking Report 2000. June 2000. Page 14.|Back to Text|

21. Byrne, David. "Biotechnology: Building Consumer Acceptance". Presentation made at the European Business Summit. Saturday, 10 June 2000.|Back to Text|

22. Ibid.|Back to Text|

23. ibid. Byrne has had a long career with the ICC, where from 1988 to 1997 he remained a member of the ICC's National Committee (Ireland), and he served for many years (1990-1997) in Paris as a member of the ICC International Court of Arbitration, officially letting go of his membership prior to accepting his post as Attorney General and later European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection. Source: Curriculum Vitae of David Byrne. http://europa.eu.int/comm/commissioners/byrne/cv_en.htm |Back to Text|

24. Lamy, Pascal. Address to the European Business Summit workshop entitled: "From the "Vision" to the Winning International Strategy". Saturday, 10 June 2000. Lamy had just returned from the US where he attended a conference held by the powerful US lobby group, the US Council for International Business (USCIB), representing some of the world's largest US-based transnational corporations.|Back to Text|

25. Hoar, Rebecca. "Raising the European Standard." EuroBusiness June 2000, Vol. 2, Issue 1, Page148.|Back to Text|

26. Malherbe, Didier. "European Business Summit Objectives." European Business Summit Programme and Participants Guide. June 2000.|Back to Text|

27. Ibid.|Back to Text|

28. Hoar, Rebecca. "Raising the European Standard." EuroBusiness June 2000, Vol. 2, Issue 1, Page148.|Back to Text|

29. Janssen, Baron Daniel. Comments made at the European Business Summit workshop entitled: "From the "Vision" to the Winning International Strategy". Saturday, 10 June 2000.|Back to Text|

30. Ibid.|Back to Text|

31. Liikanen, Erkki. Speech to the European Business Summit. Friday, 9 June 2000. A week after the EBS, Liikanen spelled his idea out more clearly at a speech to the chemical industry lobby, CEFIC: "The Commission is determined to further improve the quality of regulation, in general. In a recent Communication, subsequently endorsed unanimously by the Council of Ministers, it emphasised the need for better regulation and the need to avoid over-regulation. These aims are to be sought through improved Business Impact Assessments, which will be considered at the highest levels before adoption of measures by the Commission." - Liikanen, Erkki. Speech to CEFIC. Venice, 16 June 2000.|Back to Text|

32. Ibid.|Back to Text|

33. Prodi, Romano. Closing remarks to the European Business Summit. Saturday 10 June 2000.|Back to Text|

34. Parker, Garry. As quoted by Renée Cordes in "Tackling the EU's Innovation Deficit", article appearing in the European Voice, 8-14 June 2000. Page 27.|Back to Text|

35. Malherbe, Didier. Comments made at a press conference at the European Business Summit. Saturday, 10 June 2000.|Back to Text|

36. "From Seattle to Brussels". Statement by opposition groups circulated at the European Business Summit. Also available on the web at http://www.xs4all.nl/~ceo.|Back to Text|

37. Ibid.|Back to Text|

38. Lamy, Pascal. Comments at a press conference at the European Business Summit. Saturday, 10 June 2000.|Back to Text|

39. Jacobs, Georges. Comments at a press conference at the European Business Summit. Saturday, 10 June 2000.|Back to Text|

40. Emilio Gabaglio Secretary General of ETUC (the European Trade Union Confederation - who incidentally spoke in favour of industry proposals to reform the labour market).|Back to Text|

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