EXCLUSIVE: Edmund Stoiber, a German Bavarian politician who heads the European Commission’s high-level group on cutting administrative burdens, lobbied former Health Commissioner John Dalli on the controversial tobacco directive during one of his group’s meetings, a EurActiv investigation can reveal.
Stoiber’s intervention on behalf of a Bavarian snuff manufacturer took place in a meeting between the High Level Group of Independent Stakeholders on Administrative Burdens (HLG) on 3 May 2012, when the group met Dalli in Brussels to discuss health policies.
A Commission spokesman confirmed to EurActiv that, during the meeting, “Mr Stoiber mentioned a complaint received a few days before from a medium-sized tobacco company.”
EurActiv understands that the intervention lasted around a quarter of an hour. “It is normal practice that such complaints, which concern problems of more general nature, are taken up in the group’s work and feed into its advice in the shape of so-called ‘offline-opinions’ addressed to the Commission,” the spokesman said.
Stoiber followed up by forwarding the letter from the tobacco company to Dalli on 10 May 2012.
But the interjection was not mentioned in the official minutes of the HLG which are published on its web site. The spokesman explained that these usually focus only on “those issues discussed in more detail”.
The Commission spokesman said that in replying to Stoiber on 28 June, Dalli explained the rationale behind his directive and “this closed the matter for the HLG”.
But news of the intervention will cause controversy since Stoiber was effectively lobbying Dalli on the issue which led to the Maltese commissioner’s resignation last week over alleged connections to another tobacco lobbyist.
It also comes at a critical juncture for the HLG, which is awaiting an official prolongation of its mandate, amid criticism that it is increasingly intervening in legislation under consideration, rather than focusing on existing rules burdensome for business.
Move was 'tantamount to lobbying'
Some members of the High-Level Group believe Stoiber may have exceeded his mandate by focusing the Group's attention on draft legislation instead of concentrating on existing EU directives and regulations.
Jim Murray, a former secretary general of EU consumer organisation BEUC who sits on the High-level group, told EurActiv: "It has always been my view that the Group should not comment on draft proposals for possible legislation and certainly should not have privileged access to interrogate Commissioners on such proposals behind closed doors."
Other seasoned political observers in Brussels say Stoiber may have crossed a red line by allowing privileged access to high officials at such an early stage of decision-making.
“Without casting any doubt on the group itself, it is surprising that it...did not fully give itself institutional safeguards on accountability and transparency, to avoid being suspected of being the prey of influence seekers,” said Lorna Schrefler, a researcher on regulatory affairs with the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).
“That is tantamount to lobbying even if the Commission can ignore it,” said one senior political analyst who preferred to remain anonymous.
EurActiv understands that concerns have been raised in different quarters that the HLG has extended its mandate too far in reviewing current legislation.
Danger that Group is becoming a magnet for lobbyists
A letter sent by the consumer group BEUC to Commission President José Manuel Barroso (12 April 2012), seen by EurActiv, referred to the work of the group straying “far beyond its original mandate”.
“We also think it inappropriate that the Group involved itself in reviewing legislation of very recent origin, at a time when the Commission was interacting with stakeholders and dealing with teething problems that might have arisen in relation to the legislation in question,” the letter continued.
It identified a “clear danger” that the group “would serve as a political focus for those who had opposed the legislation in question and who would simply repeat arguments that the co-legislators had in effect rejected.”
Similar concerns have been raised by the European Trade Union Confederation.
“We believe also that the HLG has exceeded its mandate on numerous occasions in issuing opinions on proposals for legislation under discussion in the Commission, and on legislation that has been enacted very recently,” a spokeswoman for ETUC told EurActiv.
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