President Ursula. (JEAN-FRANCOIS BADIAS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

December 19, 2022   5 mins

Addressing a recent European Parliament debate on “human rights in the context of the World Cup”, vice-president Eva Kaili had an unexpected message: “Qatar is a frontrunner in labour rights.” So, perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised when, last week, she was among six people arrested by Belgian police amid allegations of Qatari corruption and money laundering .

Members of the EU establishment have been quick to spin the issue as a problem limited to a few bad apples. Several European Parliament officials told Politico the allegations were limited to a “few individuals” who had gone astray. Others, however, expect more names to be drawn into the widening dragnet. But whether or not the scandal extends to other people is beside the point. By focusing on “Qatargate”, we risk losing sight of the fact that the scandal is a symptom of a much deeper and more widespread malaise, involving not just the European Parliament but all EU institutions. Bribery and corruption are endemic to the Brussels system — and most of it is perfectly legal.

It is estimated that there are more than 30,000 lobbyists working in Brussels, making it the second capital of lobbying in the world after Washington, DC. Most are in the service of corporations and their lobby groups, with huge sums at their disposal: the combined lobbying budget of the 12,400 companies and organisations on the EU lobby register has grown steadily over the years — especially since the pandemic — and today amounts to €1.8 billion.

Topping the list are Big Tech, Big Pharma and Big Energy giants such as Apple, Google, Meta, Bayer and Shell, as well as industry associations such as the European Chemical Industry Council, the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA), and BusinessEurope — all of which declare annual lobbying budgets of €4-6 million. The true figure is likely to be significantly higher, given the long history of businesses under-reporting their spending.

Big Pharma and Big Tech, in particular, both significantly boosted their lobbying firepower throughout the pandemic. EFPIA alone — which represents Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson — increased its spending by 20% in 2020. A conservative estimate of total annual EU lobby spending by Big Pharma is now close to €40 million per year, with nearly 300 lobbyists officially working in Brussels to push the industry’s interests (though the actual number is probably higher, since disclosure rules do not capture all the spending on law firms, academic partnerships and activities in individual countries).

It’s safe to say the investment was amply repaid: by the end of 2021, the EU had signed €71 billion worth of confidential contracts, securing up to 4.6 billion doses of vaccines (more than ten doses for each European citizen). EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen negotiated its biggest deal yet with Pfizer — for up to 1.8 billion doses, worth up to €35 billion if fully exercised — via a series of text messages with the company’s chief. The European Public Prosecutor’s Office has opened an investigation into the matter.

Such extreme cases, however, mask the true extent of the structural problem that pervades every aspect of the Brussels system. It goes without saying that this army of well-funded lobbyists, which far outnumbers and outspends public interest groups, gives corporations a massive influence over the European decision-making and legislative process. Lobbyists in the EU also have privileged access to decision-makers: the biggest companies and lobby organisations hold hundreds of meetings with the European Commission every year. Between December 2019 and May 2022, for example, the von der Leyen Commission engaged in a staggering number of 500 meetings with representatives and lobbyists of the oil, gas and coal companies — close to one meeting every working day.

Since the start of the war, the arms industry has also (very successfully) ramped up its lobbying efforts, using the resulting uncertainty to whitewash its image and position itself as an essential partner that can provide the necessary tools to ensure security. In the days following Putin’s invasion, the German arms lobby group BDSV even went as far as asking the EU to “recognise the defence industry as a positive contribution to social sustainability”.

Meanwhile, corporate lobbyists across the board now dominate membership of the Commission’s many advisory groups. Unsurprisingly, this influence can easily result in biased advice. Research by watchdog groups has revealed that 75% of lobby meetings of Commissioners and high-level Commission officials are with lobbyists representing big business. In key areas such as financial regulation, digital services, the internal market and international trade policy, this figure rises to over 80%. This is particularly worrying if we consider that a very large portion of the laws adopted by national parliaments — on issues ranging from food security to the working conditions of truck drivers — are decided at the EU level and then simply transposed into national law by national parliaments.

To make things worse, despite the existence of a lobby register, there is relatively little oversight over the whole process. Indeed, the requirement for lobbyists to sign up to the bloc’s Transparency Register only became mandatory last year. Until then, the entire system functioned on a voluntary basis, which naturally led to massive under-reporting of lobbying activities. This placed the EU well below the standards of liberal democracies such as the United States, and even of several member states.

Yet even now, several loopholes remain. While high-ranking Commission officials and the European Parliament’s committee chairs and rapporteurs who draft legislative proposals are required to log and disclose their meetings with stakeholders, regular MEPs — who actually vote on the proposals — and lower-tier staff, such as assistants from the Parliament and the Commission, are only encouraged to do so. The European Parliament, as Alberto Alemanno, EU Law professor at HEC Paris, has noted, “is the only institution that basically has virtually no rules imposed on their representatives and very weak enforcement of those ethical rules”.

Moreover, the EU register only requires an annual update, and does not provide meaningful information about lobbying on specific laws and policy issues, making it hard to track lobbying activities. And then there is the infamous Brussels “revolving door”, which allows Commissioners, MEPs and EU officials to go straight into lobby jobs when they leave office — such as Commission President Barroso’s recent move to Goldman Sachs and Commissioner and Neelie Kroes’s switch to Uber and Bank of America. The door also swings the other way: the current executive director of the European Medicines Agency, Emer Cooke, previously worked for the EFPIA, Europe’s largest pharmaceutical lobbying organisation.

Pro-EU reformers say these problems can be resolved with institutional tinkering, such as extending the requirement to disclose their meetings with lobbyists to all EU officials, introducing stricter codes of conduct, and setting up an ethics committee overseeing all EU institutions. Some claim the problem is the opaque nature of the EU’s legislative process, which makes it practically impossible not only for citizens but even for national parliaments “to scrutinise how their national representatives have acted”, as Emily O’Reilly, the official European Ombudsman, admitted. Others argue that the solution is to “democratise the EU” by strengthening the European Parliament.

But all these proposals miss the point: the EU, by virtue of its supranational and technocratic nature, is structurally prone to capture by vested interests, be they foreign governments or multinational corporations — and no amount of reform will change that. The problem of lobbying exists at the national level as well, of course. However, this is hugely exacerbated at the supranational level. As the researchers Lorenzo Del Savio and Matteo Mameli write: “International loci are in general physically, psychologically, and linguistically more distant from ordinary people than national ones are. This distance means more room for oligarchic capture.” It is telling in this respect that most Europeans have no idea who the President of the European Parliament is.

In this sense, the problem of EU corruption, rather than being a bug in the system, should be seen as an inherent consequence of the supranationalisation of politics. Making the EU “more democratic” won’t change the fact that the lack of a European demos represents an insurmountable obstacle to the creation of a European democracy, even if Brussels was interested in going in that direction (which it isn’t). The number of corrupt officials involved in the amateurish Qatargate scandal is of little importance; for the EU, it is already too late.

Thomas Fazi is an UnHerd columnist and translator. His latest book is The Covid Consensus, co-authored with Toby Green.