Brussels blamed for big business ‘bias’

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The European Commission’s high-level groups are “skewed” in favour of business interests and fail to guarantee equitable consultation of all stakeholders, allege Friends of the Earth in a new report to be published tomorrow (12 February). The NGO is calling for a moratorium on the creation of new such groups until more “transparent mechanisms” have been established.

“Privileged access for business seems to have become institutionalised in many expert groups, with industry representatives all too often occupying most of the seats granted to non-governmental players,” concludes the report, compiled by Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE) and seen by EURACTIV. 

The recommendations and progress reports produced by the Commission’s high-level groups (HLGs) “are geared primarily towards improving the competitiveness of European industry at the expense of environmental objectives,” it claims. 

FoEE thus conclude that HLGs “cannot be the right place to formulate important and controversial policies,” calling on the EU executive to “dissolve groups that are controlled by industry interests or take steps to ensure a more balanced representation”. 

Moreover, the report calls on the Commission to disclose membership information (names and organisations) and documents (reports and minutes) in a “comprehensive register”. 

The NGO also wants the EU executive to refrain from setting up new advisory groups “until transparent mechanisms for their creation have been established, including clear and solid criteria that guarantee equitable consultation of all stakeholders”. 

The report specifically looks at seven HLGs established by the EU executive’s enterprise and industry directorate, covering a range of issues from energy, the environment and competitiveness to cars, textiles and clothing, pharmaceuticals and chemicals, “raising serious questions about their democratic legitimacy”. 

‘Biased’ membership… 

“The composition of the majority of groups examined was found to be skewed to the benefit of industry,” states the report. 

In two groups (‘textiles and clothing’ and ‘administrative burdens’), “more than half of all members represented business interests, effectively giving them corporate control,” it claims, while “more than half of the non-governmental members” on the other five came from business. 

…and ‘biased’ policy recommendations 

HLG reports on cars and textiles and clothing “clearly reflect an industry agenda,” the report alleges, because their recommendations “follow a market-oriented approach, watering down or disregarding standards in the name of competitiveness”. 

Meanwhile, “the recommendations made by the HLG on competitiveness, energy and the environment […] reflect the industry bias within the group with a clear emphasis on techno-solutions,” it states. 

Moreover, if given a voice, the contribution of non-industry representatives “appears to have an adverse impact on the work of the group, with the suggestion that industry […] loses interest and the group loses its raison d’être“.

Industry expertise ‘crucial’

Commission spokesman Mark Gray told EURACTIV that such reports tend “to pick out one or two loaded examples from industry” but neglect to present the wider picture. 

He declined to comment on the specifics of the report until it is published, but stressed of putting the role of high-level groups “in the right context”. “It is the Commission that prepares and drafts legislation. High-level expert groups act as one of the useful tools for consultation and expertise,” Gray said. 

“It is crucial that the Commission uses the expertise of industry when discussing the competitiveness of important European industrial sectors,” the spokesman for the EU executive added. “High-level groups have a specific remit which is often limited in scope and time.”

The Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE) report calls on the new European Commission to "find more open and democratic ways of consulting stakeholders" than high-level groups. 

"There are inconsistent levels of information available about the [high-level] groups, although levels of transparency have generally improved for the more recently-formed [ones]," it adds. 

FoEE's Christine Pohl said the policy recommendations of many HLGs "are geared primarily towards improving the competitiveness of European industry and do not adequately consider the integration of environmental protection requirements into the definition and implementation of Community policies". 

"The composition of most high-level groups is skewed in favour of industry interests," contradicting the European Commission's own requirements of "equitable consultation," Pohl continued. 

"As they stand, high-level groups lack the expertise and democratic legitimacy to be an adequate forum for the development of policy recommendations for the Commission," she added. 

"The FoEE report shows that both in terms of their composition and of their agenda, the high-level groups set up by DG Industry and Enterprise are biased towards corporate interests. This carries the risk of policy capture by these interests, and may lead to EU policies that are not serving the general interest. Therefore, the Commission should abandon the model of high-level groups and look for different, more balanced methods of obtaining external policy input," Erik Wesselius of Corporate Europe Observatory, a transparency NGO, told EURACTIV. 

High-level groups (HLGs) gather expertise from industry and civil society and are established by the EU executive to help it to develop policy recommendations in complex fields. 

The Friends of the Earth Europe report, set for publication tomorrow and entitled 'Whose views count? Business influence and the European Commission's high-level groups,' scrutinises the "composition and outcomes" of expert bodies advising the EU executive. 

Last spring, the Commission agreed to publish a list of individual experts who sit on its advisory groups after transparency campaigners presented a report accusing the EU executive of bias in favour of industry. They called for the dissolution of some groups (EURACTIV 26/03/08). 

The Commission has long consulted expert committees - comprised mainly of government experts from each member state and representatives of civil society, industry and scientists - to better address the technicalities inherent in the application of EU legislation, via a practice known as 'comitology' (see our Links Dossier). 

  • 12 Feb.: Friends of the Earth Europe report set for publication.

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