EU needs compulsory transparency register to rein in Big Pharma lobbying

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Big Pharma is out-gunning its civil society and non-profit rivals in terms of lobbying, access, and influence at the EU institutions, write David Lundy and Rachel Tansey.

David Lundy and Rachel Tansey work at Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO). CEO works to challenge the influence of big business and business lobby groups in EU policymaking.

The pharmaceutical industry’s Brussels lobby effort has never been in such rude health, with annual spending of at least €40 million and 176 fulltime lobbyists to push its priorities in the EU capital.

The picture for access to medicines campaigners, health groups, and patient rights advocates is already bleak, but is likely to be bleaker than it looks. The EU lobby transparency register is voluntary, doesn’t require much in terms of detail from those engaged in lobbying, and doesn’t sanction the submission of false information. With under-reporting and absentees from the register, spending by the pharmaceutical business in Brussels is thus likely to be even greater.

On top of this super-charged spending power, lies Big Pharma’s exceptional knack at securing high-level meetings with Commission officials. This aptitude has certainly not taken any knocks since last year’s change of guard at the Commission as Team Juncker has shown itself only too willing to lend an ear to the sector’s concerns.

Top of the list? According to the research from our ‘Policy prescriptions: the firepower of the EU pharmaceutical lobby and implications for public health‘ report published this week, the ongoing talks for an EU-US trade deal – TTIP – is a major preoccupation for the pharmaceutical industry at the moment . Multinationals in the medicines business are hoping to get their way on secrecy around clinical trials results, as the transatlantic negotiations continue, claiming ‘commercial confidentiality’ to deny patients, doctors, and researchers access to results and methodologies from drug testing.

The other most sought-after conversation topic for Big Pharma when it comes to meeting Berlaymont influencers is the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI). This is Europe’s largest public-private partnership ostensibly aimed at speeding up the development of better, safer medicines for patients, and boosting innovation in Europe. A joint venture between the EU and the largest pharmaceutical industry lobby group, IMI was launched back in 2008.

It is a good example of the intimate links between industry and decision makers in the Commission’s drive to strengthen the hand of a multi-billion euro industry yearning for taxpayer-funded grants, business-friendly policies on intellectual property, and profit. An investigation by German magazine Der Spiegel and Belgian daily De Standaard earlier this year concluded that the billions already invested by the EU in the IMI have effectively been a giant subsidy for the sector rather than a boost for medical research. This capture of EU funding by the pharmaceutical industry reflects a parallel capturing of the narrative on EU health policy, whereby the sector’s intentions and motivations go largely unquestioned by policymakers.

Such excessive influence must urgently be tackled for the sake of public health, access to medicines and trade justice. Shady dealings in Brussels are also bad news for EU leaders already facing public backlash and negative press on a wide range of issues so far in 2015. Despite growing public awareness of, and anxiety with regard to the way Brussels policymaking remains all too malleable in the hands of corporate lobbyists, the ‘new’ Commission seems content to stay the course, sleep-walking its way into the next big lobby scandal.

The starting point to preventing this from happening should be full lobby transparency via a truly mandatory EU lobby register, both monitored and sanctioned. Complete and automatic disclosure of lobby meetings with all policy-makers, and a rebalancing of interests in advisory groups are also long overdue.

Last summer, when Mr Juncker promised to boost transparency and balance, and instigate a “mandatory lobby register covering all three institutions”, we thought things were looking up for citizens and campaigners. Unfortunately, one year later, big business seems to be getting its way more and more in Brussels to the detriment of the public good – the pharmaceutical industry’s EU firepower is one of the darkest examples of this.