In his 1977 book Politics and Markets the political scientist Charles Lindblom argued that corporatism had become the dominant form of organising government. Whether that was true of every western country at the time or indeed of any western country at the time is up for debate. The issue has no doubt kept many university Politics Departments very entertained for many, many hours. It probably will continue to do so for a long time to come.
What is less obviously in doubt, in the later stages of the 20th Century and early 21st Century, is the emergence of post modern structures of governance across parts of the continent of Europe, which have delivered a form of corporatist government, on steroids! Some have suggested these structures may even be pre-modern, but that is a topic for another blog post. Even a casual observer can see that corporatism (i.e. the institutionalised influence of big capital) is a key element in the byzantine structures and processes of the modern day EU. Corporate interest groups and associated lobbyists purporting to represent key constituencies swarm around Brussels like Locusts around a field of crops. Some have estimated that the ‘lobbying industry’ in Brussels is worth around €1.5bn annually.[i]
Alright, so prima facie, the EU looks like it has strong corporatist elements, but how can we verify this proposition and why is it important in any case? Quite simply there evidence of the corporatist nature of the EU is freely available. So too is the evidence of the damage to the public good that this form of institutionalised corporate influence often results in.
As a starter for 10, one way of verifying the EU’s corporatist nature is to look at the extent to which interest groups (especially business ones) cluster around it and are able to input into the policy making process. The numbers are telling. As of the 21st of February2016, there were 9, 173 organisations registered on the EU’s so-called Transparency Register:[ii]
18% are companies and groups.
24% are trade and business associations.
While 12% of the total are professional lobbying firms, law firms and consultants.
Overall, more than half of those 9,173 registered organisations/ individuals are working for businesses or are businesses making money out of lobbying. A 2011 report by the Corporate Europe Observatory suggested there could be as many as 30,000 lobbyists in Brussels, which at the time was nearly one lobbyist for every Commission official.[iii] It is easy to imagine that over the intervening years that number has grown rather than shrunk.
Invaluable research by the Alter-EU Coalition has uncovered evidence from one Commission Directorate General (DG FISMA) that around a fifth of the groups that DG officials met with between December 2014 and July 2015 were not on the register.[iv] This is not surprising. The register is only voluntary! If this reflects the wider picture then at least a further 1,834 organisations and individuals can be assumed to be lobbying the EU in Brussels.
OK, the numbers are high, but what evidence is there that it is big capital which is gaining the influence and are able to meet those who make the policy? Beyond the most senior officials there are no transparency limits as to who a meeting can be had with and so it is difficult to know at these lower levels what is going on. However, the research by Alter-EU found that around 9 in 10 of the meetings between EU officials from DG FISMA and outside organisations were with the corporate sector.[v] The situation in DG FISMA is mirrored in data published by Transparency International, which found that three-quarters of the meetings between Commissioners and/ or the most senior Commission officials and outside groups are with corporate interests.[vi]
Casting an eye over the organisations which not only support the EU but are putting their corporate money where their mouth is, if you’re on the left and believe in an open, pluralist, democratic system of Government where ordinary voters have the real influence, then you have to start to put two and two together and drawing some conclusions. Goldman Sachs, according to the EU’s Transparency Register, in 2014 spent between €700,000 and €799,000 on lobbying the EU.[vii] ‘Coincidentally’ Goldman Sachs are a reported contributor to the BSE campaign.[viii] Goldman Sachs are unlikely to be spending this amount of money in Brussels so their representatives can enjoy the waffles. Rather a hard headed company like Goldman Sachs must be making business decisions about pursuing their own interests in the ways that deliver the best returns. In this case Brussels, with its legislative competence over financial issues, is a good place to pursue those interests.
There are a lot of lobbyists and the corporate ones have considerable access to policy-makers in the EU but still some may ask, is the evidence that in the end this approach is detrimental to the public good? Well, perhaps the emissions scandal (or ‘Diesel-gate’ as it has been termed) is the most egregious recent example of the corporatist EU, the ‘coincidence’ of interests that corporatism as a system encourages and favours and its anti-public interest consequences. Attempts to fool the emissions testing regime by manufacturers is a clear illustration of how the symbiotic relationship between EU and corporate interests can and does work against the public good. In this case it was to effectively commit fraud on consumers and has plausibly contributed to the deaths of numerous people.[ix] As Alter-EU has described:
‘When searching for the failures of the EU's regulatory system, lobbying by Volkswagen and its car industry allies against strict and tightly enforced rules to achieve EU emissions reduction standards quickly reveals itself to be an important way for the industry to influence on rule making and enforcement. Volkswagen is a major EU lobbyist with a spend of 3.3million euros in 2014 and the equivalent of 18 full time lobbyists. The company ranks among the10 biggest companies lobbying the EU. Together with their trade association ACEA (Association des Constructeurs Européens d'Automobiles), Volkswagen and other car producers dominate high-level lobby meetings in the Commission. A recent study by Corporate Europe observatory showed that of 44 car-related meetings, only 4 took place with civil society groups and all others with industry’. [x]
Lobbying is only the start of it however. The corporatist nexus in Brussels goes even further than the direct influence that comes from lobbying. The role of industry on leading policy development bodies in the EU is also significant.[xi] This is a closely related issue but one that deserves a blog-post of its own.
For Lindblom, it was in part the privileged position of business in the hierarchy of interests and consequently in the policy-making processes of governing institutions that led to him making the argument that corporatism had become dominant in the governing system. With the evidence piling up, surely there can be no doubt that the EU is, in many ways, a corporatist structure and as such a lobbyists dream and more concerning for those with a democratic inclination a political construct inimical to the principles of openness, pluralism and accountability to the people. It certainly seems to the DLN that irrespective of whether Lindblom was right about politics in the 70s, it is surely indisputable that for this corner of the European continent corporatism has come to pass and is alive and well.
[ix] The Independent reported that there are over 5,000 deaths in the UK in part attributable to diesel fumes and over 400,000 premature deaths across Europe as a whole related to air pollution: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/if-youre-not-concerned-about-behind-the-scenes-lobbying-you-should-be-it-affects-everything-from-the-a6697056.html