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The EU’s Complex Relationship With Big Business

The EU is facing backlash over allegations that top EU officials conducted and arranged several backroom meetings between top EU officials, Dutch politicians and Uber representatives for the sake of advancing Uber’s market position and relationship with public authorities in both the Netherlands and EU wide.

OLAF, the European Union’s anti-fraud agency has recently opened an investigation into allegations concerning the EU’s former top-tier member of the European Commission. Neelie Kroes, a Dutch national who commanded the post of Vice-President of the Commission for ten years until 2014, has been accused of complicity with Uber’s latest lobbying efforts. Having allegedly arranged several backroom meetings between top EU officials, Dutch politicians and Uber representatives, she now faces the scrutiny of EU investigators for breaking regulations regarding a mandatory 18-month “cooling-off period” during which former members of the Commission can not engage with business-related matters.

This marks a further blow to the EU’s already declining lobbying and transparency reputation. Being far from the only lobbying scandal shaking up Brussels (one must only recall the cash for influence scandal that rocked the EU parliament in 2011) it seems due time to reexamine Brussels’ relationship to big business and lobbying as such.

Many often mock the U.S for its transparency and funneling of dark money into politics via the infamous Political Action Committee system that allows virtually unlimited amounts of money to enter politics each year. Yet Brussels and the EU are not far behind when it comes to matters of shadowy influence.

A recent report by Transparency International sheds light on this fact and reveals that after the 2014 European Parliament elections a staggering 51 Members of the European Parliament found new employment in officially registered lobby groups connected to the EU. To think that these ex-parliamentarians do not use their old contacts at the EU institutions for newfound influence would probably be stretching credulity. An even more concerning revelation occurred when in 2014, after serving as EU Commission President for ten years, José Manuel Barroso switched over to Goldman Sachs where he has stayed up to this date. A report by the Guardian states that considerable meetings were held between the now private citizen Barroso and top EU officials after his tenure as President that had “the appearances of a meeting for lobbying”.

Perhaps it is high time to ask how the Commission wants to put a lid on nefarious and undue influence in the halls of EU institutions when it can not even guarantee ethical behaviour amongst its current and former members. The issue of ‘revolving doors’, however mighty it may seem, is however quickly eclipsed by the sheer amount of capital invested by big business institutions into lobbying the EU and all its institutions.

Research recently conducted by the two lobby watchdogs ‘Europe Corporate Observatory’ and ‘LobbyControl’ reveals that Big Tech has spent an eye-watering 97 million Euro on lobbying in the year 2021 alone. This puts Big Tech firmly in the first place amongst the various industry sectors and it does not come by surprise. Recent legislation in the Parliament that aims to reign in Big Tech by imposing more stringent rules for digital platforms has certainly caused a commotion amongst the most active Tech players in the industry. It seems that the EU’s recent efforts at regulation have been impressive enough to warrant Big Tech eclipsing all other industries, even finance, in terms of lobby expenditure. The question remains as to what effect this money has been spent and if we will see it produce concrete results for the Tech giants- to everyone else’s detriment.

Though it may seem palpable that lobbying may influence Brussels, it is not always the case that businesses get their way with legislation in the EU. Topical research on this matter conducted in 2015 sheds a more nuanced light on the issue of influence over legislation. It was found that although business interest groups may have considerable sway over the policy process, they are less successful in getting what they want than citizen groups. However, citizen groups rely on a much greater politicization of issues than business interests, and it is only when these are sufficiently publicized that citizen groups have a fighting chance. It must also be said that these findings also admit that business interests still hold much more power over agenda setting which remains one of the critical ways in which legislation can be quickly shelved or taken up.

Recent favourable developments that have changed the institutional set-up of the European Union such as the Treaty of Lisbon further give the European Parliament more oversight and have since then become known as the “co-decision procedures” wherein the parliament must approve any measures proposed by the Commission before they are adopted.

This shift from unilateral executive decision-making has spurred a recent democratic impetus in the EU when formerly the Parliament played only a minor role. Citizen groups time and time again prove that they are more successful fighting off legislative proposals influenced by business interests when the Parliament is involved yet the Commission retains significant powers in deciding what regulatory route it takes.

Up till now the Parliament is only sporadically consulted, sometimes completely omitted from the process. Here is where the EU must accept its failures inherent in the Treaty setups and open itself to more democratic reform. Though many acknowledge this, the road to more parliamentary oversight and engagement is complex and dependent on Treaty reform which many member states are keen to avoid. Until the Treaties are revised, the business lobby and the aforementioned Big Tech interests will continue to hold an easy sway over the Commission and influence policy that will yield unfavourable outcomes to the citizens of the EU.

The EU likes to remind us that one of its aims is to strengthen European industry and remain competitive for the turbulent decades to come. It can hence safely be said that the EU has outdone itself here already. European lobby groups have never been so prosperous and influential. The competitiveness of European lobbying is and remains a hallmark of EU policy.

There does however remain hopeful in the spurred democratization and empowerment of the EU Parliament which has until now functioned as more of an aesthetic and legitimizing institution. When and if the Parliament is completely unshackled of the bonds bestowed upon it by the numerous preceding Treaties we will hopefully see more transparent and accountable EU politics. Until then the best we can do is bring attention to the numerous scandals and crises rocking the top levers of EU power whilst we quietly hope for change.


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