EU Insider in Brussels. A chat with a lobbyist, part 1.

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What is lobbying exactly? How do we define it? The Oxford dictionary describes lobbying as follows:

Mid 16th century (in the sense ‘monastic cloister’): from medieval Latin lobia, lobium ‘covered walk, portico’. The verb sense (originally US) derives from the practice of frequenting the lobby of a house of legislature to influence its members into supporting a cause.

What is lobbying according to my interviewee? It´s my first question sitting on a sunny terrace in the centre of Brussels.  She (or he, who knows?) lobbied for the financial world quite some time and is now busy with a project ‘ to let the financial world work for society again, and not the other way around’, as the interviewee calls it.

This is part 1 of a conversation about what lobbying is, moral guilt, transparancy and the culture of the Brussels based lobbying scene. Tomorrow we will publish part 2.

What is lobbying according to you?

I would describe it as the interaction with policy makers with the goal to influence them. You have three elements: policy makers, interaction and influence. About all of them you can say a whole bunch of stuff.

Sometimes lobbying is portrayed as something ‘bad’ or shadowy.

Well, what is the bad or shadowy part then? Often, if you continue the conversation, people tell you indeed they find it sometimes shadowy. It becomes like that if you are not transparent. Or, they tell you it’s all wrong and corrupt. I don’t know anybody in my profession who is either corrupt or ‘wrong.’

In the meantime:

The guy who’s walking there is working for the glass industry. He’s not bribing people. And he doesn’t go to restaurants or whorehouses to bribe policy makers or business people. Thats corruption, something totally different.

It also has to do with your own political position. You have to be aware that lobbying is something huge. It covers a lot of topics. You can go to a meeting, you can write a piece in the newspaper or you can write an online article. There are so many ways of influencing people. Both direct and indirect. If you are able to write a Letter to the Editor in the Financial Times, you know for sure MEP’s will read it. The letter probably has a bigger impact then to take them out for lunch. Both of them you do with the intention to influence him or her. The question is, what do you want to forbid? What is the alternative if this work is ’wrong’? You are not voicing your own opinion, but from somebody you are working for. Its your boss. I get payed by the one who asks me to influence somebody. Is that wrong? If you have problems with this kind of work, you should decline doing it.

I once had a situation with a former employer, a client from the tobacco industry, a sensitive subject. The question was if there was somebody willing to take on this job. If you felt it was not your cup of tea, you could decline. Normally it doesn’t work that easy, but this time they asked the question head on. The same counts for the weapon industry. If you think its something you don’t want to do, decline. If you are a vegetarian, you shouldn’t go out and lobby for the Society of Slaughterhouses. You have to define your own limits. Right now, I don’t feel like lobbying for the financial industry, so I decline to do that. If somebody else has no harsh feelings about it, he or she is free to take on the task.

In eveything you do, you should always do it transparant and in the right proportions. You have to make sure there are forces who control you and know who’s doing what. If that’s not the case then corruption and shadowy behaviour can indeed come in.

How is the transparancy register for lobbying parties working right now?

Yes, thats always the subject that people put forward when it comes to controlling the lobby industry. Its the only thing we have right now. You are not obliged to register yourself, so in that sense you can raise questions about it. But making it manditory doesn’t solve the problem either, my guess is. There is no capacity to do something with all the information. We have worked together with a couple of organizations like for instance the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Organizations like the Bureau are working on studies to look into these kind of dilemmas.

A couple of other organizations are working with existing data. They are canalizing them and are trying to make matches with other data available. For myself, I cannot use all the information. You only know what kind of money people spend. I want to know what themes people working on, what people say, who talks with who. You will not find that kind of information in their data. If you want to collect that kind of data lobbyists should, like for example in the United States, regularly give information about the persons they have spoken with for more than 6 minutes. In the US you have rules describing that lobbyists are not allowed to show up at seated dinners, cause that could be bribery. In Brussels, high staff members cannot take gifts higher than 50 Euros. For an MEP this is 150 Euros. Higher amounts should be declared. The money is collected and will be spent during christmas on holiday gifts for instance to make sure there is no direct relationship between the gift and the person.

If you are caught on leaking information or other acts of corruption you can get fired. You lose your job. So people think twice before doing things like that. Leaking still happens the old fashion way. You leave the papers by accident behind during lunch etc. In Brussels you have some parties who involve themselves with anti-lobbying and working methods that are not my cup of tea. Some industry lobbyists can respond quite heavy on them. I have a private life. I don’t want to get involved in working methods like that.

You have lobbied for the financial industry for some years. They know you, and you know them.

Yes, and most of them know why I do the work I am doing right now. In general, they are okay with it. Both in private and in public. Or, they think we legitimize it, so they do not have to involve themselves in the work we do.  Or, they just think a little bit more balance with regard to the financial lobby is a good thing. In the environmental world you also have organizations like Greenpeace. On labour issues, you have trade unions. I am not somebody who is talking in negative terms about the world of lobbying  My colleagues know that.

What was the most important reason not to lobby for ‘the financial world’ anymore?

I was done with the profession and the arguments being made. The arguments became weaker and weaker as the crisis evolved. The story became worse over time. It was so clear how money and self-interest played the biggest role of all. But, you couldn’t speak out on it. We always had to come up with some kind of lousy story about the ‘general public interest’ or ‘employment’.

A couple of weeks or months ago, in the France senate, there was a good example. ‘Do you know we help approx. 400.000 people with employment in this country?’ Reasoning like this kills every debate. Its blackmail. During that time people approached Ministers with a bunch of foreign investors. ‘If you not vote against this bill, we will withdraw our investments in your country’. That subject involved 300.000 jobs or so. Often these working methods are successful. On this occasion the particular Minister agreed, but the deal eventually didn’t go through.

Another example was a Belgian politician who wanted to invest in clean energy. He wanted to build windmills in sea, approx 10 km from the shore. The costs were too high. You can better continue with our existing nuclear energy plant, he was told. A politician is not able to ignore this. He cannot say, ‘ I have a vision, I want to do this, and everybody who believes in it, vote for it, and we shall see. Its just not possible. You often get these boring governments nowadays with all these political parties in the middle of the political spectrum. I don’t say that Greece or Italy are that stable, but we don’t move forward this way.

Part 2 of the interview can be read here.


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