Monday, January 16, 2012

Is the European Parliament a corporate dating agency?

Elections often have little to do with democracy.

Stepping into a polling booth once every four or five years is a pretty meaningless exercise if the people we chose to “represent” us either belong to a financial and corporate elites or are subservient to them. The European Parliament is an elected institution but is it a democratic one?

Democracy, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state”. A code of conduct for MEPs approved by a majority of them last month seems to chime with that concept. It said that MEPs shall “act solely in the public interest”.

But there are strong reasons to predict that the code will be habitually violated. Many MEPs have joined secretive clubs, known within the Brussels beltway as “intergroups”, that serve private, rather than public interests.

Karl-Heinz Florenz exemplifies why these clubs are pernicious. In 2010, this German Christian Democrat set up the European Raw Materials Group, with the objective of making the supply of natural resources a top priority for the EU’s political activities. The invitation for the group’s inaugural meeting indicated that it was an initiative of the Small and Medium Entrepreneurs Union, a business association led by Paul Rübig, the group’s co-founder. Rübig combines his job as an MEP with being a managing director of an eponymous metal company.

Florenz has been tasked with drafting the Parliament’s official position paper on a planned EU law for dealing with old computers, mobile phones and electrical equipment. His paper, scheduled for debate in Strasbourg this week, recommends that a proposal made on this topic by the European Commission should be amended to emphasise that “retrieval of critical raw materials” is a guiding principle when managing electronic waste. Florenz has argued that the Commission’s blueprint paid insufficient attention to raw materials.

Conflict of interests

Florenz’s key suggestions (which include a target for recycling 85% of electronic waste by 2016) may well be sensible. But his eagerness to stress the raw materials component of this dossier must raise questions, considering his links to companies that have a vested interest in pushing the EU to pursue a more aggressive agenda on ensuring access to the often rare resources required by modern technology. Recycling plays little more than a cameo role in that agenda, which is mainly focused on ensuring that corporations won’t be held back from exploiting the resources of foreign (and frequently impoverished) countries by namby-pamby ideas like ecological protection or national sovereignty.

The new code of conduct for MEPs also commits them to abide by the principles of “selflessness, integrity, openness, diligence, honesty [and] accountability”.

When I asked Florenz if corporate interests had any input into this work, he replied that he had personally drafted the paper, along with an assistant. “There is no conflict of interests, firstly because the European Raw Materials Group has not yet started its content-based work and secondly because the European Raw Materials Group is simply a group of like-minded members of all political groups in the European Parliament who exchange views on a subject,” he added.

Can we really believe that his intention was merely to start a talking shop for policy wonks?


It is worth recalling that the MEPs’ code of conduct is the direct result of a sting operation undertaken by reporters working for The Sunday Times. Unlike the despicable phone-tapping undertaken by other newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch, this operation was perfectly defensible as it exposed how corruptible some politicians are. When the paper’s reporters posed as lobbyists and offered 60 MEPs large sums of money in return for tabling amendments to legislative proposals, they found that 14 MEPs were willing to accept such bribes.

Florenz was not among the 14 but it has been documented that he has tabled amendments written by private sector interests in the past. An investigation by the organization Corporate Europe Observatory revealed that when the Parliament’s environment committee was conducting a debate on the EU’s emissions trading scheme (ETS) in 2008, Florenz copied and pasted amendments drawn up by the steel industry group Eurofer and signed them as if they were his own work.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that such behaviour is common in the Parliament, yet there is no appetite to stamp it out. Even if no cash is offered in return for tabling amendments, the practice is unethical.

Florenz is undeniably influential. He was chairman of the environment committee from 2004 and 2007 and then served as the Parliament’s point man on climate change between 2007 and 2009.

In a 2004 interview with The New York Times, he was quoted as whinging about the inordinate number of lobbyists who badger MEPs. His staff, however, appear to be on such good terms with those pests that they sometimes end up being hired as lobbyists. Axel Eggert, a director of public affairs with the aforementioned Eurofer, is a former assistant to Florenz. Another one of Florenz’s previous advisers, Christian Hierholzer, went on to work as a healthcare specialist with Weber Shandwick before heading the Brussels office of hanover, a public relations firm so cool that it spells its name in lower case.

The career path followed by these men illustrates the unhealthily close relationship between MEPs’ offices and big business. How can we have democracy if the EU’s only directly elected institution serves as a corporate dating agency?

●First published by New Europe, 15-21 January 2012.


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