When changes to EU law are going to have an impact on business, businesses lobby. That is normal. That business tries to use financial clout to increase its influence in Brussels is also normal; that’s why we need things like the transparency register and websites like LobbyPlag to see who is lobbying whom. Now you might argue that businesses have too much influence, or can buy influence, but I am not going to try to answer that accusation in this blog post. That the European Parliament is the most lobbied of the EU institutions is also normal – it is the most open institution.
However rather than looking at what lobbyists do, I was today struck by the despicable behaviour of one particular MEP – the Belgian former Commissioner Louis Michel (Mouvement Réformateur, ALDE Group) – and how he reacted when being asked questions about how lobbyists had influenced him.
As reported by De Morgen (original in Dutch here), and based on this investigation by LobbyPlag, a site that compares lobbyists’ amendments to those submitted by MEPs, Michel submitted the second highest number of amendments to the Data Protection Regulation that were aiming to make the legislation less tough on privacy, 158 in total. Now this may be justifiable – if Michel wants to be seen to be pro-business then he can stand up and say so.
But no, Michel instead said “This is the work of an overzealous employee. I never had contact with a lobbyist.” (“Dit is het werk van een overijverige werknemer. Ik had nooit contact met een lobbyist.”), going on to say that he had been in Mali.
Sorry Louis, but this is unacceptable, however you look at it.
MEPs are responsible for the amendments they submit. The question then is if Michel trusted his member of staff to make political judgments on amendments or not. If he did, and the staff member made an incorrect call, that is a matter for Michel to deal with within his office, and to discipline the staff member – in private – accordingly. In public it is Michel that is the MEP, and the buck stops with him, so he cannot wash his hands of the matter. Conversely if Michel did not trust the employee to make such calls, then he was personally deficient for not having checked the amendments that were submitted.
To put it other words, Michel is either behaving inappropriately, or incompetently, or both.
We elect MEPs, not assistants, and this legislation is going to have a major impact on every EU citizen doing anything online. When MEPs of mainstream, notionally responsible, parties behave like this, is it in any way surprising that trust in our political institutions is declining?
And when the Committee came to vote, Michel withdrew about 80 amendments. Still, stupid and embarrassing in equal large measure.
The stupid behaviour of Louis Michel and his media interviews subsequently made into this TV documentary “VRT Panorama: Privacy for sale” linked here http://www.deredactie.be/cm/vrtnieuws.english/videozone_ENG/MV_131220_Panorama
I fully agree. You cannot hide behind your staff. The other point is that this is the most important legislative dossier in LIBE right now. As a committee member he can’t say that he was not part of discussions. The amendments were tabled months ago. MEP Michel had the freedom to withdraw his amendments which he – to my knowledge – didn’t do for months. As the most lobbied dossier in Brussels it is remarkable that Michel argues he was not in touch with any stakeholders.
Curious. In Belgium, like the Netherlands, there is along tradition of politicians taking responsibility for civil service screw-ups (unlike, say, the US, where it seemed unthinkable that Kathleen Sebelius would have to resign). I guess they still only do that when they can’t get away with blaming their minions.
P.S. I call BS on the idea that the Parliament is the most lobbied. My impression from having workedin Brussels and studied it is that the Commission is lobbied more than the other institutions combined, as you would expect given that that is where the detailed rules are made.
Alas, isn’t that lack of any sense of responsibility almost all-pervasive? In businesses AND in politics?
You claim credit for all the good things and if you are accused of something bad, you find a scapegoat…