In Brussels, the lobbyocracy rules

EU laws affect us all, but it's the corporate lobbyists who have the biggest influence on them. Thei

A few dozen Hungarian bee-keepers with their bee-yellow baseball caps are leafleting outside the European Commission on a sub-zero Brussels Monday morning. On the small traffic island allotted to such demonstrators they are campaigning with many exclamation marks for Purer Honey! Cleaner Environment! No Foreign Imports! Ignored by most of the pedestrians crossing rue de la Loi between the Commission building and the Council of Ministers headquarters, the protesters buzz into startled action when I stop to ask about their aims.

A stone's throw away in Parc Leopold, in the shadow of the new European Parliament building, preparations are under way for a more sophisticated lobbying event to be held that evening in the Bibliotheque Solvay. This former academic institute, expensively restored to art-nouveau glory by a city council that recognises Brussels's biggest growth industry, has become the top venue for dinners and seminars where representatives of corporations and business federations can rub shoulders with Europe's lawmakers.

Tonight's event is a video link-up or "Atlantic Rendezvous" between Eurocrats and their Washington, DC counterparts, and is organised by Friends of Europe, a leading Brussels "think-tank". A glance at its website (www.friendsofeurope.org) reveals that much of its "thinking" relates to ways in which top corporate executives can further enrich their companies by getting to meet the right people. Membership, the site boasts, offers "unparalleled networking opportunities" and the possibility to "directly communicate with key heavy-hitters such as EU commissioners, EC directors general, MEPs or ministers".

I am enjoying a guided tour of the Brussels "lobbyocracy" organised by the Amsterdam-based Corporate Europe Observatory (www.corporateeurope.org). CEO (which will make its tours more widely available when the weather improves) has been concerned since 1997 at the unchecked and barely acknowledged growth in the number of individuals and organisations buying and selling influence in European law-making. It wants to see more transparency, underpinned by legislation subjecting Euro-lobbying and networking to the same kind of scrutiny that US and Canadian lobbyists and politicians have to live with. For example, it argues, the bigger lobbyists should publish details of whom they represent so that politicians urged to support a change in draft legislation will know who is paying the lobbyist's bill.

An official register (published on the European Parliament website) lists roughly 5,000 lobbyists, but registration is voluntary. CEO believes around 25,000 or even 30,000 earn their living from wheeling and dealing in the corridors and dining rooms of Brussels. There are probably already as many lobbyists as there are Brussels bureaucrats and they could soon form the city's biggest industry as well as its fastest-growing.

The European Parliament estimates 70 per cent of these lobbyists represent corporate interests, 20 per cent non-governmental organisations, including trade unions and health and environment groups, with the remaining 10 per cent lobbying for individual countries. The big concerns all have their offices a convenient hop, skip and jump from the major European institutions.

At just one address, for example, 118 Avenue de Cortenbergh, the occupants include the US Chamber of Commerce, Unilever and public relations giants such as Hill & Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller. A few doors up the road is the giant European employers' federation Unice, which rather preposterously claims to represent 40 million small companies. Nestling in between two parliament buildings are more interest groups, including the PR firm Weber Shandwick and a US think-tank, the International Council for Capital Formation.

Such groups want their voice heard in Brussels because European legislation has an increasing impact on every aspect of business life: roughly half or more of national legislation in member states now originates in Brussels. Laws designed to improve the health of European citizens and to protect their environment may have serious effects on profits. But such legislation is often highly technical. MEPs and even specialist committees cannot make decisions without expert advice - and they will get it whether they solicit it or not.

Take the chemicals industry. On 21 January, the European Parliament started to debate proposals for a system of registration and evaluation of all chemicals. But the chances of a smooth passage for a measure intended to improve the health and safety of millions are slim, as the example of brominated flame retardants shows. Attempts to ban these have been delayed for eight years, thanks to the lobbyists. Burson-Marsteller, which runs the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum (BSEF) from 118 Avenue de Cortenbergh, claims the credit. (B-M's former clients include Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress and the Saudi royal family; its former campaigns include persuading Europeans to embrace genetically modified foods.)

The EU proposed to ban three types of bromine. BSEF championed one, sponsoring studies into its safety. A recent report declared it safe. The scientific studies may be beyond question. But it is surely right that everyone should know that the research was funded by the four companies that manufacture the flame retardant and bankroll BSEF: Albemarle (US), Dead Sea Bromine Group (Israel), Great Lakes Chemical Corporation (US) and Tosoh (Japan). As a BSEF official boasted: "This is the first time a flame retardant has been found not to be a danger to human health and the environment."

Expert groups inevitably lobby legislators worldwide. And in Europe, with so many conflicting interests, the lobbyists' contribution might even be broadly positive - or it could be if environmental groups, for example, were able to compete against the big corporations on a level playing field. But the opinions politicians and policy-makers receive need to be subjected to greater public scrutiny. This is Europe's much-criticised democratic deficit: the widespread perception that ordinary Europeans have little or no influence over decisions that could affect all our lives.

But as Erik Wesselius, my guide from CEO, revealed more links between agencies and organisations, a more serious flaw became apparent. Most of the corporate lobbyists in Brussels can reasonably argue that, when they press their case for changes to draft regulations, they simply represent, as friendly experts, the continent-wide consensus that supports free trade, a business-friendly environment and light regulation. When a group is out of step with that consensus - such as those bee-keepers who want to keep out foreign honey - its campaign is dead in the water, no matter how many leaflets it hands out and whether or not it employs a lobbyist. What is missing within Europe is not just democratic structures but any proper political debate. The European Parliament, far from maturing into a parliament that can discuss foreign policy, alternative economic strategies, relations with the US, or even the admission of new members, is stuck as a technocratic forum for harmonising arcane regulations.

Mark Leonard, former director of the think-tank the Foreign Policy Centre, once suggested that the problem in European institutions was less one of a democratic deficit than of a "political deficit" and that this ensured the triumph of the technocrat. Leonard's latest book, out later this month, draws back from this analysis and argues that an invigorated Europe will run the 21st century. If he is right we can only hope, for the 21st century's sake, that it is not the lobbyists who are running Europe.