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Recently, there has been a lot of talk around the corruption charges against MEPs highlighted by the Sunday Times. In this context, some articles published in the press associated lobbying with corruption. Even the Secretary General of a major European party stated: “It does look like an infestation of corporate lobbyists in the European Parliament and it seems that their only entry pass into the Parliament is a credit card.”

Of course, The Lobby cannot condone such behaviour by either lobbyists or MEPs, but neither can it stay completely silent when such accusations are put forward against our entire industry. It’s worth recalling that, in the case of the Sunday Times, fake lobbyists trapped real MEPs.

Like most industries, lobbying produces its fair share of black sheep. However, the vast majority of interest representatives use honest and straightforward means to bring their point across, and many subscribe to a voluntary chart of self-regulation and are also signatories to the Commission’s voluntary Register of Interest Representatives.

Still, many people believe that lobbyists – even if they are not corrupt – are problematic for the democratic functioning of a society. This is completely wrong.

Interest representatives are a democratic necessity. If one thing is certain in EU-Brussels, it is that there are lobbyists for everything: large corporations, NGOs, trade unions, trade associations, national, regional, or local governments, consumer groups, patient groups, professional groups, and so on.

It is up to decision makers to decide whom they listen to, particularly those who will be impacted by the decision, consider their arguments, and take a decision. Indeed, most MEPs would say that lobbyists are actually appreciated, since they can provide necessary information which is just not available elsewhere.

Anything else would be tantamount to policy being made in an ivory tower, far away from what society really needs. Can this be said to be truly democratic?

Christian

 

Pulling the plug on social media? (Ethernet Cable by Petr Kratochvil, via publicdomainpictures.net)

In the wake of the fact that more and more Swedish communes are using Facebook and Twitter for ‘citizen communication’, the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SKL) today published a set of guidelines (in Swedish) for the use of social media.

The guidelines stem from a judicial inquiry, which has given the ‘all clear’ for Swedish communes, local authorities and regions to use social media. Given that over 60 communes in Sweden already use twitter, including local politicians and public servants, it was just a matter of time before guidelines were published.

But will this spread to Brussels?

When our friends over at Fleishman-Hillard looked into how MEPs use the internet, including social media, they found that 21% of MEPs use Twitter, among others. Couple that with the amount of Commissioners who run their own blog, MEP assistants and Commission officials active (and visible) on Facebook, etc, and you could almost be surprised that there are no official guidelines for how elected officials (and EU civil servants) are to tweet and blog!

Will there be guidelines for the Brussels-based politician and civil servant? Should there be…?

– Emil

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CANCELLED – this word is currently written on the departure and arrival screens of most airports across Europe following the closing of air traffic since last Thursday. Thank you Eyjafjallajökull!

No, not the name of a hero in Lord of the Rings, Episode IV, but the name of the Icelandic volcano currently creating chaos in the European sky.

In addition to ruining thousands of holiday and business trips (I might soon join the crowd of frustrated travellers), the ash cloud in the atmosphere also threatens EU’s own institutional habits.

Yesterday, the EU Fisheries Council was cancelled and the Transport Council was held via conference call. MEPs almost had their Strasbourg week cancelled, and although it is finally taking place, all voting procedures have been pushed back until May (as expected, this has provoked another run of arguments against the Strasbourg seat).

The Lobby hopes the whims of Eyjafjallajökull will not have too much consequence on Iceland’s EU bid and that EU leaders will be more indulgent than this young Scottish traveller (see below).

– Denis

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It’s a strange week in Brussels.  There are definitely fewer people around.  The STIB timetables are set to vacances scolaires, and you don’t keep bumping into people on the Rue du Luxembourg.  No-one seems to be picking up the phone at the European Commission.

We don't all get time off to eat Easter eggs. Source: http://www.freefoto.com/preview/9909-03-683?ffid=9909-03-683&k=Easter+Eggs

But hark! What is that I hear?  Is it the sound of MEPs pressing the electronic voting button in the Parliamentary committees?  A smattering of applause as another own-initiative report passes inspection and scuttles off to be grilled in Plenary.

The Lobby’s inbox is swamped with out-of-office requests to contact so-and-so-‘s assistant (assistants, as noted in a previous post, don’t seem to take holidays), yet the Brussels policy machine rumbles on.  This can of course present problems for those in the EU bubble who want to spend “quality time” with their children over the school holidays, yet need to keep up with the latest developments in the institutions – if The Lobby had its own family of mini-Lobbies, we may be inclined to sympathise.

MEPs, too, feel the strain.  Monica Frassoni, when an MEP, always complained at being called to Brussels on urgent Parliamentary business during Easter week, and used to say so during Committee meetings.  Just today, a Polish MEP assistant known to The Lobby complained wearily as we ascended the escalator in the Parliament about having to start back so early – Easter Tuesday morning, in fact.

Still, at least those MEPs busily voting away this week can rest easy in the knowledge that, come August, it will be their turn to be on holiday whilst lobbyists up and down the city will be preparing for the onslaught of la rentrée.

The institutions always seem so keen to harmonise standards across the EU, yet as long as lobbyists continue to take holidays at variance with the EU institutional calendar it will likely be them who suffer in the long-run.  Which is why The Lobby is working today!

– Rob

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The Commissioners’ candidate hearings have been something of a disappointment, with some notable exceptions called Almunia, Barnier, Hedegaard, or Oettinger. The Bulgarian candidate Ms Jeleva was sacked and Ms Kroes, Mr Rehn, Mr Semeta, and Baroness Ashton had lucky escapes after disappointing MEPs in their respective committees.

© European Communities, 2009

In theory, Commissioners should be chosen for their suitability for the portfolio, their knowledge of the portfolio, and their European commitment, which includes their independence from national influence.

It is clear that this is not quite the case in Brussels yet, but what was striking during the hearings was the vagueness of the candidates’ responses, leading to perceptions of being unprepared. Candidates were generally weak in presenting priorities for their five years in office and avoided demonstrating any audacious vision or “big picture” in their policy area.

What emerged later is that candidates actually followed Mr Barroso’s instructions for the hearings to the letter. Low-profile, low-exposure, and evasive answers was the brief given by Mr Barroso, who wanted to prevent any clear answers from causing a revolt in the European Parliament, as happened back in 2004 with Mr Buttiglione.

Aside from the fact that Ms Jeleva was rejected anyway, the initial impression is that the incoming college of Commissioners is perceived as weak and unprepared. The final verdict on the new Commissioners is pending, and we will have to wait for a few months before they show their true colours…Barroso permitting.

– Ilja

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Committee week in the European Parliament is the marmite of lobbying – you either love it or you hate it.

Politics in action...and free coffee!

Whilst I can understand those lobbyists who see Committee week as mission impossible, flitting in and out of meetings, trying to be in three places at once, their phones stuck to their ear, anxiously tapping on their laptops or running down corridors trying to find room JAN 2Q2, I’m afraid I cannot empathise.

I love Committee week.  If anything represents the raison d’être of being a Brussels-based lobbyist, it is being sat in a Committee room listening to an attempt by a Commissioner or Minister to justify him or herself to a lynch mob of MEPs, many of whom are liable to say something outrageous, hilarious, or patently untrue, and invariably do.

Attempts have been made to webstream Committee meetings, leading to the temptation to just stay behind one’s desk and watch the webcast, but there is nothing like experiencing a meeting in the flesh.  Facial expressions speak volumes, particularly when an MEP or official is being attacked from all sides.  An MEP who literally gives a Minister the thumbs down (as happened yesterday) will be missed by the camera, as will any frantic yet amusing attempt by the Chair to halt a UKIP member in full flow.

But what I like most about Committee week is the camaraderie of those of us in the back row.  The lobbyists, MEP assistants, and journalists who often have to sit through hours of debate only to hear that the issue they are there for has been put back to the next day, or maybe cancelled altogether! Some get exasperated at such agenda changes, but I find it exhilarating. What will happen next?  You never can tell.

And the free coffee! And free bottled water!  And the ability to listen to a debate on organ transplants in Hungarian, Finnish, or Slovak!

Committee weeks are the bread and butter of our business in Brussels. The networking, the political intrigue, the nitty-gritty – all are part and parcel of our daily work, and all are amplified within the context of a European Parliament Committee meeting.  Politics in its purest form stripped of all gloss and glamour – just the way it should be.

– Rob

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Long gone are the days of salary differences between Bulgarian and Italian MEPs of up to €9,000/month. When MEPs met in Strasbourg this week for the first plenary of this new European Parliament, for the first time they are all being paid the same – and being paid by the EU.

So what’s the big deal? Well, in most Member States it isn’t a big deal, except perhaps in Sweden, Germany, and the UK. High salaries for politicians are simply not compatible with Sweden’s tradition of equality and are generally frowned upon. To illustrate this, Swedish MEPs will, if they choose to enter into the new salary regime, make a whopping 36% more than a Swedish MP. For instance Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt “only” makes around €11,940/month, while Swedish MEPs will now make around €7,840/month.

In an article published by the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet, Swedish MEP Marit Paulsen says “I cannot tell you I’m worth this kind of monthly salary. But at least now it’s taxed and transparent”. This attitude is echoed by Eva-Britt Svensson who says that she only uses part of her salary (the same amount as when she was employed in the Swedish public sector), approximately €2,050/month, and donates the remaining €5,800 to, among other things, women’s shelter organisations. Christian Engström of the Greens has said he will donate part of his salary towards the Pirate Party-movement.

It’s easy to put a positive spin on this, but shouldn’t taxpayers have a say when a politician chooses to systemically donate a significant part of their EU salary (taxpayers money don’t forget) to an outside organisation?  If they don’t want to receive the full amount, can’t they give it back to us?!

– Emil

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So do you want to go to Simonis?  Or Simonis?  The two signposts point down opposing escalators.  Such is the quandary  awaiting newly disembarked passengers at Brussels Midi station as they make their first intrepid exploration of the Brussels metro system.

It didn’t used to be like this.  Prior to April you had a clear and understandable choice – Simonis?  Or Delacroix?  (Or take a taxi).  But the reorganisation of the Brussels metro system has, and continues to create, increasing confusion for both visitors to the “capital of Europe” and the people who live there.

Line 2 has been made into a circle, reminiscent of London’s Circle Line.  Only it hasn’t.  Not quite.  The line now follows the Inner Ring and both starts and finishes at Simonis.  The two Simonises (Simonii?) are not linked, meaning that the STIB has missed a great opportunity to introduce a circle line worthy of the name.

Moreover, instead of stating whether such-and-such a train is going clockwise or anti-clockwise, signposts now point you in one direction to Simonis (Léopold II) or Simonis (Elizabeth).  Plumping incorrectly for one can lead to an unexpected tour of some of Brussels’s less salubrious districts on a network still alarmingly free of any personnel or security whatsoever.

I cannot begin to tell you how frustrating this is. I have been living in Brussels for over four years and have never got on the metro heading in the wrong direction.  Until now.  Quite how such confusion can result from a relatively small infrastructure is a mystery, but one thing is for sure – Brussels deserves better.

In the meantime, if you see any lost MEPs or Commissioners, please do them the courtesy of pointing them in the right direction.  That is, if you know where you are going yourself.

– Rob

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Proof that MEPs are back at work

Proof that MEPs are back at work

Spotted by The Lobby in the halls of the European Parliament:  a poster advertising a 6-hour course for MEPs on how to work with lobbyists.

Or possibly it is merely a command to our new Parliamentarians: “Work with lobbyists”.

Either way, The Lobby is heartened to see MEPs taking “les lobbyistes” seriously, and if ever they require a guest speaker for any future sessions, we would be all too happy to oblige.

– Rob and Delphine

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MEPs voting and attendance records to Committee and Plenary sessions are being duly scrutinised since VoteWatch.eu was launched on 11 May (see Close-up on voting records). Several MEPs have already been hauled over the coals (sometimes unfairly) and suddenly been put into the uncomfortable position of justifying a weak score. Transparency is definitely the order of the day and this is no bad thing.

But who is scrutinising candidates who already know that they will never, ever, take up a seat in Strasbourg? How many of these ghost-candidates top their party lists for the EU elections across Europe? Does honesty carry less weight than transparency?

– Miguel

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