Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Time to talk straight about corporate power

Straight-talking is such a hallmark of the North-East of England that it is listed as a tourist attraction by local authorities. Voters in the region might be interested, then, in reading the latest “declaration of interests” for their man in Brussels, Martin Callanan. It shows that the Conservative MEP undertook a “biofuels study visit to Malaysia” in May 2010. To his constituents, a “study visit” translates as a “junket” or a “jolly”.

Callanan’s expenses-paid trip was organised by the Malaysian embassy to the EU, which diligently promotes palm oil as essential for Europe’s transport needs. This week Callanan will return a favour to his hosts when he presents a paper he authored on “light commercial vehicles” (or, as his constituents call them, “vans”) during a session of the European Parliament. His paper advocates that there should be a special pollution target applying to those vans which can run on a blend of conventional petrol and biofuels.

Callanan’s paper is the Parliament’s official response to proposals on regulating emissions from vans published by the European Commission in 2009. Callanan purports to be a public representative, rather than a stooge for the private sector. How can it be right that he first behaves as a biofuels freeloader, then puts forward recommendations tailored to serve that industry?

A few months before he became Britain’s prime minister last year, David Cameron raged against the “far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money”. Cameron’s comments primarily related to domestic politics but they are equally valid when applied to his party’s MEPs, including Callanan.

A few years before he became prime minister, David Cameron tried to rebrand the Conservatives as an ecologically sound outfit. The behaviour of Callanan and other Tories underscores how cynical and hollow an exercise that was.

Along with his fellow Tory Malcolm Harbour, Callanan has been one of the most active participants in the Forum for Automobile and Society since its inception in 1999. The forum brings car-obsessed MEPs together with the manufacturers of their dream climate-changing machines. Both Harbour and Callanan have done nicely out of this far-too-cosy relationship (to use their leader’s words).

Harbour’s latest declaration of interests indicates that he no longer takes free gifts from his corporate chums. Nonetheless, he has spent much of his 12 years as an MEP doubling up as an adviser to the car industry and as a legislator on dossiers affecting that sector. He has attended Grand Prix racing as a guest of Jaguar and Toyota and been loaned a variety of models from different companies. Callanan, meanwhile, has admitted that he was given a discount by Ford when he bought a new car in 2006. No company gives a politician a perk without expecting something in return.

Whereas the Commission had proposed that an average new van should release no more than 135 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre by 2020, Callanan is pressing for a far less stringent target of 140g per km. His stance mirrors that of ACEA, the main umbrella group for car and van makers in Europe, which claims that it is being required to bring down emission levels too quickly.

ACEA deserves no sympathy. Although most sectors of the EU’s economy reduced their emissions of greenhouse gases between 1990 and 2007, there was a net increase of 185 million tonnes in the amount of carbon dioxide released by road transport over that period, according to the European Environment Agency. The urgent task of making cars and vans cleaner and more fuel efficient must not be stymied by a few Tories with a surfeit of testosterone.

In Bursting the Brussels Bubble, a book published last year by an alliance of transparency activists, this city was labelled a paradise for corporate lobbyists. On most weekdays, it is virtually impossible to walk through the European Parliament’s corridors without bumping into hordes of gung-ho gun-for-hires. Corporate interests massively outnumber champions of nature and the poor. An authoritative source told me recently that 700 access badges to the Parliament have been issued to the pharmaceutical industry. Public health advocates, in contrast, have less than 10.

The Parliament’s internal rules require that its members declare gifts they receive from governments or companies. Yet there are no comparable regulations obliging MEPs to divulge who writes the amendments that they seek to planned new legislation.

One of the most important dossiers considered by the Parliament’s economic and monetary affairs committee in 2010 related to the management of hedge funds. When this dossier faced a key vote in May last year, the committee had to grapple with 1,600 suggested amendments. Parliamentary insiders estimated that half of these were drafted by lobbyists representing the financial sector.

It is a measure of how far the Parliament can be removed from the real world that this appalling state of affairs was presented as a good thing. A clip on EuroparlTV, the assembly’s in-house channel, focused on the hedge fund dossier to explain what was called “the art of the amendment”.

David Earnshaw from the public relations behemoth Burson-Marsteller featured on that piece arguing that the “tabling of amendments to some extent demonstrates the democratic process.” What nonsense. Allowing a corporate clique dictate how their industries should be regulated amounts to a subversion of the democratic process. If this carry-on is so prevalent in the EU’s only directly-elected institution, why should anyone trust the wider system?

·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 13-19 February 2011

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