May 07, 2008
The EBPS scheme story involving all groups deemed not practical
We continue the story on the alleged lobbying office functioning currently in the European Parliament under the name of European Business and Parliament Scheme. Following our latest news, the office sent us a wide range of documentation, comprising the communication between representatives of the schemes and various MEPs and officials. Reading this documentation did nothing to change our perception on their activity – more than ever we are surprised now that so many high ranking figures of the Parliament have failed to note several important issues with the scheme.
A short history
Using the pattern of the IABP (International Association of Business and Parliament), the scheme was gradually developed to what it is today through a series of cooperations that started as early as 2004. MEPs like Alejo Vidal-Quadras Roca, with experience of the IABP activity in national parliaments, were a main proponent of setting it up in the European Parliament as well.
The goal: giving senior EP staff at first, later all MEPs, the chance to first hand witness the realities of a business sector. The correspondence between Mr. Vidal-Quadras Roca and such high figure such as former Secretary General Julian Priestley, former President Pat Cox or current President Pottering shows a lot of good will towards the establishment of a non-partisan, independent cooperation between the EP and businesses, with educational goals.
The faults begin however with the talks for the membership of the supervising board of the scheme. In 2004 the names of the MEPs which are to compose the board are discussed – there is no mention of a possible election procedure where all groups would be involved. “Although ideally such a Board would be representative of all political groups, this we felt would not be practical“is said in one such communication between members of the IABP Secretary General Hyde-Chambers and the Secretariat of the Parliament. Therefore, the procedure of choosing board members became something done behind closed doors – basically they were appointed from the ‘practical’ groups. Eventually they were John Bowis (EPP), Dirk Sterckx (ALDE), Lena Ek (ALDE), Edith Herczog (PES), Manuel Medina Ortega (PES), with Green MEP David Hammerstein-Mintz quitting the board after being a member.
Besides the membership of the board issue, that clearly has nothing to do with the ideas of transparency or openness, the second is that of the office in the European Parliament. The Office of Quaestors rejected the initial requests, out of justified fears that allowing an outside body to have a headquarters in the Parliament would set a precedent. In December 2006 the Quaestors rejected another request, explaining that EP offices are mainly intended for the use of the EP, not outside organisations.
Eventually, however, the office was granted, at the 5th floor of the Spinelli building. This was done after 2 rejected requests, showing a lot of persistence from the part of the scheme.
The EBPS activity
What drew our attention from the correspondence was something that seems to have eluded, well, everyone involved with it. Many praises are said about the programmes that the scheme provides and everyone agrees that this has nothing to do with lobbying. By its own statute, the EBPS is a “non-profit, non-partisan, non-lobbying organisation”. The MEPs have to pay their own travel and accommodation, while the companies provided the programmes which are “tailored to the needs of the participants”.
The programmes, as previously mentioned, offer stages, seminaries and visits for MEPs to certain companies (only the ones cooperating with the IABP). They give, quote “a bird’s-eye view of the company: its objectives, strategies and institutional framework” and more than this “teamwork with the company, in its different functions and aspects”. Participants in the programmes learn “about how decisions are taken, and about their scope quality and follow-up”.
The companies themselves can “learn the opinion of the Senior Parliamentary Officials as to the companies’ ideas”.
Now, this sounds indeed invaluable. A picture from a leaflet of the scheme shows a Swedish MP looking fascinated at the machines within a factory she is visiting trough the IABP. Indeed, this means the participants acquire invaluable information on the business they are visiting – they can after all even talk to the employees, exchange ideas, and see all levels of the company.
But indeed this is the problem. They see the company, the particular company that pays the fee of membership to the IABP and they understand that perspective on the market. They return to Brussels enlightened – but in all earnesty, who can claim that this experience is in any way objective?
Where are the views of the small or medium enterprises? Of the consumers, of the trade unions, NGO’s, environmental organisations? We do not have anything against the idea of lobbying (even though the Commission itself chose in its 2006 Green Paper to change the name to ‘Interest Representatives’ as opinions on the term were “critical”). Open, transparent and equal chances for interest representation should be given to all interested parties.
However, what the EBPS does is that it provides a window of opportunity for the big players to bypass all usual channels of representation. Were the programmes to be truly encompassing and equal for all sides, then the scheme would live up to its claims.
It is indeed surprising that while many praises are given to the issue in the letter from various high level figures of the EP, not a single point or question is raised about the programmes themselves. It might very well be that this is the “different view of reality” British MP Bruce George, the president of the International Association of Business and Parliament talked about when reacting to our first article. A view of reality where they see only what they want to see.
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