Big EU lobbying firms must not take over the European Citizens’ Initiative

Labour Party

The lobbying spectre is raising its ugly head again. It appears that two of Britain’s largest public affairs firms are attempting to take over the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI).

The ECI is an excellent EU programme intended to give people across Europe a say in EU decision making. It works by allowing any petition with one million signatures from seven different member states to be considered for possible EU legislation.

The very strength of the ECI is its grass roots appeal. It is this that Bell Pottinger and Fleishman-Hillard are seeking to exploit, according to the “i” newspaper yesterday.

Leaked documents apparently seen by “i” show that Bell Pottinger has offered to help potential clients set up petitions demanding changes to EU law under the European Citizens Initiative. Fleishman-Hillard are more forthcoming overtly referring to the ECI on their website.

Needless to say, both these firms are contravening the rules of the European Citizens’ Initiative which specifically bar organisations for exploiting the ECI, although they not prevented from supporting existing petitions, “provided that they do so with full transparency”.

While I do not take the hard-line view that all lobbyists represent the devil incarnate, this latest news about two major British firms is deeply concerning.

The ECI was established with the specific aim of encouraging voters to participate in the EU, which often seems remote from people’s lives and it has to be said, does not always listen to what its electors are saying. The ECI was a small measure to try and make this all a bit better.

Now we see lobbyists, on behalf of their wealthy, generally corporate, clients trying to take what will surely be a large slice of the cake if it is not stopped. As an aide to EU Commission Vice-President Maros Sefkovic who has overall responsibility for the ECI, said about the lobbying companies’ behaviour, “They are trying to muscle in. We have done everything we can to try to make it clear and put safeguards in place to discourage that from happening.”

Lobbyists clearly need to be monitored more closely than at present and there must be stronger regulations about how they operate in the EU and the European Parliament.

I would hope this can be done sooner rather than later. We should at all costs prevent lobbying in the EU going the way of the United States.

Comparison with the USA is, in fact, valid. The way the European Parliament is a constituted is similar to that of the American system. MEPs scrutinise and amend legislation with one member leading on the process as it goes through the Parliament. The rapporteur is therefore in a powerful position as are individual committee members who have the power to make important changes.

The number of lobbyists now operating in the European Parliament and the amount of resources their clients are prepared to devote to MEPs is a measure of just how significant the European Parliament has become. However, we, the democratically elected MEPs, must ensure that we always put the interest of the people who voted for us first and not be taken in by corporate largesse.