Last Thursday evening I happened to be in Brussels which coincided with the first public screening of a film (a self-styled documentary thriller ) ‘The Brussels Business’ – which business according to the film is the shady world of corporate lobbying of the European institutions. Of course, given my previous responsibility for ‘transparency’ in the Parliament, I could not resist. I knew from the surrounding publicity and those involved with the film, that it was hardly likely to be a complimentary portrayal. However, I have always believed that criticism can help force progress. This is the basis on which I have always welcomed the work in this area of ALTER-EU, the Corporate Europe Observatory, who were heavily involved with the film.
As a piece of cinematography the film is to be recommended and the makers have done a good job in putting together something which is both watchable and compelling – perhaps a touch too long. However my criticism of the length is as nothing to the criticism I felt compelled to make on the night in terms of the lack of balance of the content. This especially given the designation as a “documentary”; yes it is a documentary, but coming from a very specific political viewpoint. To start a debate or to present a view is fine, but the central thesis of the film that the European institutions collectively are still nothing more than an out and out capitalist plot with no democratic legitimacy is as simplistic as it is anachronistic. The film more or less ignored the European Parliament, save to show the House voting. No MEP was interviewed in depth despite the filming having taken up the last four years. The excuse given for this astonishing omission was (and I quote) “MEPs were too busy”. Maybe you can imagine my response to this – no one ever knocked on my door with a request. Indeed during the same period I saw representatives from ALTER-EU on an almost regular basis and valued their input; very strange.
It made me remember my first election campaign to the European Parliament back in 1989 when I travelled around North Essex speaking about a Europe for People, not a Europe for bankers or business. I suppose it has a resonance of a sort now. However the reality is that the European institutions and the Parliament in particular, are now incredibly “people focused” and the crucial difference now is that the Parliament has the power to show this. The film covered the WTO Seattle demonstrations, but missed the point that the European Parliament, post-Lisbon, now has a powerful voice in relation to international conferences and agreements. This is the Parliament that voted against the Swift agreement with the US, that has pushed the pause button on the ACTA agreement and this list will grow.
With these new powers comes the need for greater transparency and both Parliament and Commission have made huge progress with a voluntary register for interest representatives – of all types. The voluntary register now has over 5000 registrants. The reason the register is not mandatory is because of the complex legal entity that is the EU; it is not because of some murky corporate plot. The plot, or rather where the focus of attention should be is the Council, on individual Member States and to shine a light on who lobbies ministers ( and their staff ) in their role as Council legislative members. This is the missing part of the puzzle in 2012. Ironically many Member States are now copying the Brussels register, but what they have to be encouraged to do is to have a joined up system between any national registers and Brussels. This so that all of us can follow who is influencing who in respect of the 80% of all legislation which the film stated that Brussels now deals with.
Full transparency of the European legislative process by really opening up national governmental processes as they relate to European law making would give the people of Europe a better chance to participate. The actual tools for participation: the European Citizens Initiative, a directly elected Parliament with huge legislative, budgetary and oversight power are there now. They need to be used – not ignored!