Brussels Business or Shining the Light on the Lobbying Behemoth
Dramatic pictures, pompous music, Brussels seen from in Google Maps view or in a limousine in grey urban street canyons. If you’ve seen the movie, you do not remember exactly whether it was black and white or in colour. “The Brus$els Business” impresses and gives reason for disapproval. But not always as the Viennese director Friedrich Moser intended. I saw the movie at a preview in my neighbourhood on 7th September 2012 in the ACUDKino, a place that is oddly structured with twists and turns and back rooms, ideal for the dark suits of lobbying (although the cinema is actually in Berlin).
Anyone who has ever lived and worked in Brussels recognizes much in the movie: incredible buildings, 4-lane one-way streets, everyone wearing suits in pompous and unpleasant conference rooms and with obligatory rain on grey stone. But for a former Brussels inhabitant much is missing: Brussels with its multicultural variety of creative people, with their passion for Europe, all living in colourful Art deco terraced houses.
But that’s not what the movie is about. It is about lobbying in Brussels and from the beginning the film shows what is normally expected when it comes to lobbying. Hardly anything is wrong. Politics is Brussels is complex, confusing and in a constant process of change. And it is also true that lobbyists heavily influence the legislature, or rather influenced. Because most what is shown in the movie is history.
The massive influence of the European Round Table on the establishment of the Single Market in 1992 during the Delors I Commission remained hidden from the public – a lack of democratic control, transparency. But what is concealed, is that with the Single European Act in 1985 (which paved the way for the internal market) a profound democratisation of the European Community started. The still underestimated European Parliament has been strengthened, qualified majorities in the “member state chamber” the Council made new fields of legislative activity possible, including environmental and gender politics, the so-called “spill-over” effect. The still unfinished building of the European Union was made more democratic with the internal market.
The film is silent on how legislative mechanisms have improved in terms of transparency, dealing with this question only briefly at the end. Whether this is just because of the “good Nordic” Estonian Siim Kallas, or by the entire Barroso I Commission, or through the influence of the European Parliament remains to be seen. Without question there are more civil society initiatives, such as LobbyControl with its “annoying” activism, which have turned policy around.
But isn’t that a normal political process in a system which is dependent on independent discovery? Moreover isn’t the “imbalance of influence”, LobbyControl wants to fight, not just a perceptual distortion, an image of angst, because we do not quite understand the system? Imagine, initiatives such as the European Round Table had not been formed, would the EU Commission have started major infrastructure plans and been well informed when negotiating trade agreements? What representative shall report to European politicians, if not the CEO of a company of European rank?
Thankfully the movie shows that journalism is not interested in lobby relationships. No wonder that there is a need for investigation provided by non-governmental organisations. It shines through that the supposed democratic deficit of the European Union could be due to a failure of media which does not inform citizens about the European-national connection.
There is a great strength in the movie. It is an eye catcher for viewers. But the intense illumination of EU actors that act beyond EU summits in Brussels is also its weakness. Expressed by the background music of the film, similar to the scare films like “The Omen”, the silent conclusion is somewhat naive. Politicians meet decision-makers; decision-makers are looking for facilitators among the politicians. Who would have thought such a thing? A culture that cross-border large-scale projects from industry or politicians fail due to parochialism and the “not in my back yard” principle should not be accused as such due to the democratic deficit. The high speed ICE stations Limburg and Montabaur adapt impressively into trans-European networks. The important issue of transparency gets lost by such value judgments. And many of the spotlights which are directed on individual stereotypical aspects let forget that the lack of transparency is not just a Brussels but general problem.
At the end there is a discussion between LobbyControl activist Dieter Plehwe and director Friedrich Moser refreshingly neutrally moderated by the domestic affairs journalist Ulrike Winkelmann of the alternative newspaper taz. The question of whether transparency rules in Brussels are indeed stronger than those in Vienna or Berlin was clearly affirmed by Plehwe and Moser. Therefore movie maker Friedrich Moser pointed out that the film will be broadcasted on a thematic evening by the Franco-German channel Arte, embedded in a general presentation of lobbying. This is not entirely convincing, since many will just see this movie. I recommend as an addition the documentary “We’re in – corporate lobbyists in the centre of power”, produced by the German broadcasting co-operation Westdeutscher Rundfunk. The national atmosphere shown here is colourful which is a big contrast to the Brussels gloomy picture presented in “The Brus$els Business”. And I would be delighted if Moser would film a remake of “We’re in.” He would use a gray gloomy cold snowy Berlin, with trips through Leipziger Straße, with unsympathetic suitcase carriers at the Plattenbau-Hilton. Many non-Germans would like such a stereotypical movie.
And after all, let’s stop the image of lobbying which is based on views from yesteryear. Our society is far too diverse to allow only business power. Other than mentioned in the film is not lobbying originated in first-class hotels, but in the mother of parliaments, in the baroque lobby the British parliament! Lobbying has exploded in democracy. In monarchies it was not even necessary!
Nevertheless, with good reason the film makes it clear that the Commission relies too much on external expertise. What it does not say this is also due to a lack of experts / officials. The net payers’ contribution debate on EU budget shows this clearly.
Brussels became more parliamentary and more decentralized. Even NGO lobbyists use EU legislation for their own interests, with little money but a lot of imagination and creativity. Examples from the German Armed Forces Federation and the Federation of German Consumer Organisations, I once described in an article on Europeanisation for the University of Tartu, together with Thomas Traguth: “The impact of Europe. What you see is what you do not get.”
It is a must to see “The Brus$els business”. But above all, one should honour the announced offer in the film and to debate critically online. Moser has convinced me that Austrian nationalistic populists do not like his movie. But that should go without saying.
The film will be shown in the near future on public television (including Arte).
Bringing light into the dark Brussels: Dieter Plehwe (LobbyControl), Ulrike Winkelmann (taz, moderation), Frederick Moser (blueandgreen) in AkudKino on 7 September 2012.