The Revolving Door Temptation
Corporate Europe Observatory, 26 August 2007
Earlier this month, the Dutch daily newspaper de Volkskrant reported that Michiel van Hulten, former Member of the European Parliament and former chair of the Dutch Social Democratic party PvdA is going to join the Brussels office of lobbying consultancy Burson-Marsteller. Van Hulten, who was an MEP from 1999 to 2004 and chaired the PvdA until April this year, starts his new job October 1st. Van Hulten told de Volkskrant he is not afraid he will often have to lobby for positions he cannot support, because he is supposed to also attract new clients himself. This statement in the best case reflects a worrying naivety.
Burson-Marsteller is one of the world's most controversial 'public affairs' companies, with recent clients including Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, the Burmese dictatorship and the Saudi royal family. The company has also repeatedly run into criticism due to its record of establishing and running front groups on behalf of corporate clients. Van Hulten's future colleagues at Burson-Marsteller Brussels for instance masterminded the 'European Women for HPV Testing' coalition. Actress Liz Hurley and other celebrities that had been lured to endorse the coalition withdrew their support when they found out, through articles in a UK newspaper in 2004, that this was in fact a Burson-Marsteller campaign run on behalf of US biotech firm Digene, which wanted to boost the market for its products. Another example is Bromine Science and Environmental Forum (BSEF), which Burson-Marsteller created on behalf of chemical companies from the US, Israel and Japan who wanted to avoid an EU ban on bromine flame retardants suspected to have serious environmental and health impacts. For years the BSEF (lobbyists from the Brussels offices of Burson-Marsteller) lobbied against the EU ban on these substances, without clearly disclosing the nature of the group and the clients. In both of these cases Burson-Marsteller only stepped up transparency after having been faced with critique against these misleading lobby practices.
In the de Volkskrant article, Van Hulten defends his new job arguing that politicians in the end will make their own choice on the basis of which arguments they find convincing. This is however only true if lobbyists are fully transparent about whom they represent, so decision-makers can judge who is trying to convince them. Apart from Burson-Marsteller's problematic record in this respect, it is astonishing and disturbing that Van Hulten has himself be headhunted by Burson-Marsteller Brussels, whose 50+ staff overwhelmingly assists big business clients with influencing EU decision-making. In practice this almost always means lobbying to hinder progress in social and environmental legislation. Van Hulten's career move seems in stark conflict with the values of the Party of European Socialists (PES) - for a "people's Europe" - which he was part of in the European Parliament and the party he chaired (the PvdA's slogan is "For a strong and social Europe").
Unfortunately, Van Hulten's decision to become a 'hired-gun lobbyist' - as this profession is known in the US - is not unique. He is just one among many former MEPs - many of them social democrats - that go through the revolving door to Brussels-based consultancies that serve big business clients. David Bowe (UK Labour MEP 1999-2004), for instance, joined the Brussels team of lobbying firm GPlus Europe shortly after leaving the Parliament. Rolf Linkohr (German social democratic MEP 1979-2004) established his own lobby consultancy firm, specialized in lobbying for big energy corporations, including the nuclear industry. The revolving door phenomenon not only raises general doubts about the political integrity of the former MEPs, but in some cases also raises questions about conflict of interest. This is particularly the case if employment negotiations about the new job as lobbyist happen before the MEPs have actually left parliament. In how far can voters trust that these MEPs will continue to represent the public interest rather than the interest of their future employer?
The phenomenon is far from limited to the PES Group in the European Parliament. After his time as an MEP, Pat Cox, former president of the European Parliament (2002-2004) and part of the liberal group (ALDE), joined public affairs giant APCO but also runs his own lobby consultancy firm, European Integration Solutions, with offices in Washington D.C. and Brussels. Elly Plooij van Gorsel, a former Dutch liberal member and vice-president of the European Parliament became senior counsel at Brussels-based lobby firm Blueprint Partners (September 2004, three months after leaving the EP). Also UK Liberal Democrat MEP Nick Clegg joined a lobby consultancy (GPlus Europe) straight after the 2004 elections.
While the phenomenon is luckily still far less widespread in Europe than in Washington D.C., it is disturbing to see a growing number of MEPs go through the revolving door after leaving the parliament, into lucrative careers lobbying (and advising on how to lobby) their former colleagues. There are currently no rules in the European Parliament regulating let alone limiting the revolving door practice. The US Congress has a cooling-off period for former members (time during which they are not allowed to lobby) and recently introduced stricter ethics rules to clean up what had become a serious problem for the image of US law-makers.
The further blurring of the roles of elected politicians and (commercial interest) lobbyists threatens to undermine the credibility of EU level democracy among European citizens. It is therefore high time for the European Parliament to start addressing the revolving doors problem.