It is widely accepted that “Brussels D.C.” has become the world capital of lobbyists who try to have their say on the increasing volume of legislation originating from the European Commission. Business rules in Europe are mostly written in the European institutions. European firms are organised in different interest groups with some large companies even having their own offices in the European capital. Surprisingly, these interest groups do not have the impact on EU legislation observers might expect. But substantial power to set the agenda is held by a modest organisation consisting of some 45 members which is mostly ignored by non-specialists.
Power and influence
The ERT was founded in 1983 to bring together CEOs and other members of upper management from multinational corporations with headquarters in Europe. Membership is strictly personal and invitation only. Currently chaired by ThyssenKrupp’s Gerhard Cromme, its list of members reads like a “Who’s Who” of the European management elite. ERT members meet twice a year in the country holding the EU Presidency. The major part of the work is currently done in nine working groups on topics such as competition, foreign economic relations, employment or taxation.
What looks like a high-level think tank is a unique organisation that combines privileged personal access to national policymakers and Commission officials with strategically focused publications. Members represent an annual combined turnover of some €950 billion and employ about 4 million people worldwide. The creation of a dynamic and competitive European Single Market coincides with their business interests. Busy ERT members do not waste their time smoking cigars and playing golf. They devise the agenda that sets the pace of European integration.
The Single Market and the Lisbon strategy
Common wisdom, for instance, credits the European Commission under Jacques Delors with the idea of launching the Single Market. Few know about the speech on “Europe 1990” made in 1985 by the ERT chairman of the time, Wisse Dekker, which contained fundamental elements later to be found in the Commission’s “1992 programme”.
A more recent example of collaboration between the ERT and the Commission is the new EU aim to become the “most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world”. Launched in 2000, this “Lisbon strategy” and some of its features (for instance the so called “benchmarking” of Member States’ economic performances) have long been dear to the ERT. In a set of reports published in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, the ERT spelled out the strategy’s main aim: knowledge-based innovation, dynamic competition and a complete Single Market are expected to stimulate growth and create jobs. No wonder that the ERT now publishes regular reports which point out how slowly Europe is progressing in terms of reaching the self-set Lisbon goals.
A danger for democracy?
Judging by these two examples and other instances where the Commission and the ERT manifestly joined forces to promote key issues, the ERT has been impressively successful in making itself heard. Some may fear that this is another example of illegitimate and undemocratic corporate influence on the EU. A 2000 report by the Corporate Europe Observatory even states that the ERT excels in shaping European integration “to the preferences of European transnational corporations”.
You don’t have to share this view to admit that there seems to be a symbiotic relationship between the Commission and the ERT. In fact, the ERT, representing some of the biggest players in global business, is a natural ally for the Commission with a considerable set of overlapping interests. The Commission’s mandate is to promote further integration and both sides can profit from collaboration.
The ERT does not represent narrow interest groups but business as a whole; it is not an obscure lobby group but a small club of eminent personalities. This combination of general interest, specialised input and personalised access to policy makers has allowed the ERT to be extraordinarily effective over the past 20 years. However, fears that it shapes European integration more than democratically elected Heads of State are exaggerated. Its activities are well publicised, and, when it comes to deciding new legislation, European governments mostly have the last say.
It is nevertheless alarming that lack of knowledge about the functioning of the EU institutions is surpassed by lack of knowledge about the key lobbying actors. Rising awareness about the ERT’s and other interest groups’ role in European policy making will not only contribute to better public scrutiny, it will also contribute to making EU affairs in general less arcane.