15, October, 2010
Quite often in the last years, going through the European Parliament is like entering a bazaar. In the spacious hallways you are faced with many companies, NGOs and interest groups each with their stalls. Quite often they hold major exhibitions. They show off what each group considers useful propaganda films. Enthusiastic ‘sales assistants’ press leaflets into the hands of MEPs hurrying to vote. Journalists and others are waylaid. Free gifts are pressed on the unwary walkers in the corridors of power.
This lobbying is not confined to European entities. This week there was an exhibition in the entrance hall by a major North American power. I have nothing against the Canadians. I rather like them in general. But would Ottawa open up the hallowed halls of its Parliament to an EU exhibition pubicising its anti-seal-culling policy? Yet the European Parliament has made its ample space available for distributing material on Canadian Arctic policy.
The Canadians are also more careful about corrupt parliamentarians using a revolving door with lobbyists. The Canadians have brought in rules that forbid any former MP from becoming a lobbyist for FIVE years after leaving parliament.
All this is rather paradoxical, when the European Parliament is holding a series of meetings and discussions on the Lobby Register, now called the Transparency Register. My, oh my. Under questioning from concerned groups it is clear that the register system is totally inadequate to deal with Lobby activities.
The Canadians apart, what other parliament in the European Union would tolerate such open lobbying inside the House? Is there any parliament of the 27 States that is run like this Brussels bazaar?
On 14 October 2010 the shameful and disreputable state of lobbying in parliament was affixed like a brand on its forehead.
‘Businesses take over the European Parliament‘ was the actual title of a meeting of some 800 businessmen and women. They literally took over the Brussels Hemicycle, the main debating chamber. I was more than a little surprised to see such a brazen poster in the Parliament. It shows a shocking, thick-skinned insensitivity to constant news items about corruption in today’s politics.
Did they do all this surreptitiously? Not at all. The meeting was addressed by the Presidents of the main party political power-brokers: those of Parliament, the European Council, and half a dozen assorted European Commissioners. The Belgian Prime Minister came too. That proves one thing. Europe’s political cartel is all in cahoots.
So all the European politicians are in agreement that business lobbyists should joined hand and foot to the parliamentary process. And have the same House. This concept used to be called the Corporate State. The fascist dictator Mussolini was a proponent of that contorted idea. He said that what was good for the big corporations must be good for all Italians. The Communist Russians, on the other hand, thought that what was good for the workers was good for all the world and would lead to paradise.
Both were wrong. They made a prostitute out of parliament. Parliament requires independence from interest groups. Democracies do not have a Hire House. It is the slippery road to a governmental whore house.
The meeting was nominally organised by Eurochambres — that is European chambers of commerce. But in the debate the delegates spoke of their own companies. The entrepreneurs included property dealers and bankers. This is its second shameful appearance of the EuroBusiness Parliament in the Brussels Parliament. It is no accident.
With the full PR spin that businesses can muster, they called it: The European Parliament of Enterprises! Yes, really. They seem oblivious of the arrogance and impudence of it. They wrote that with a Euro-style logo on the session papers. They know about money.
The euro-entrepreneurs sat in the parliamentarians’ numbered seats. Each of them stuck their own electronic voting cards in an MEP’s voting slot. And they voted for their own resolutions. Fittingly they had sessions on such topics as conditions, resources and markets. They watched as they saw the results on the screens that the MEP’s use in plenary sessions. What sauce! What audacity! Who gave them the means to make their own electronic voting cards?
Symbolically that is like saying: ‘We have the secret of your vote. Look, we can vote in your seats like we own the place! We can fill all your chairs and all your voting positions. We have bought you and your House with a subprime loan!! ‘
Do the voters or the general public want the Parliament to be taken over by businesses? Do voters approve of such a take-over while parliament is still at work? That day a number of Committee meetings were in session.
What sort of message does this House for Hire give to other governments around the world?
Enter the United States Secretary of State. That day, with business interests actually sitting in the deputies’ seats, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Parliament to talk to its president and parliamentary group leaders. What were her impressions? I wonder. She has probably visited some tinpot parliaments abroad.
With all their powerful lobbyists, would the Americans let their Congress be a convention centre for their business meetings? Could barons of industry enter the moment the senators left? Could the oil lobby take over and run a session in the Senate for all to see on public TV? That would be a bit rich.
How did European parliamentarianism sink so low? The answer is simple. In their hearts, European MEPs aren’t proud of what they call democracy. With their ever-increasing salaries, perks and privileges, they don’t care a hoot if the public thinks such deals stink. They have a bad conscience at what they see around them that their minister-politicians get up to. The Council gets away with worse, behind closed doors. Secrecy and lack of accountability devalue the whole democratic environment.
They should first set their own House in order. The MEPs have never fulfilled their primary obligation to have a Europe-wide election as written in the treaties over fifty years ago. Power lies with political party machines, not the people. European democracy was designed to give a voice to organized civil society, not only political parties.
What about governmental systems that are supposed to be run by political movements? Would such business meetings take place in the House of Commons in Westminster, London? Would the chairman of the Confederation of British Industry bang his gavel while sitting in Mr Speaker’s chair?
That would be a dramatic sell-out of the centuries-long traditions of the House that likes to call itself the Mother of Parliaments. It made its own noble rules including shutting out the monarchy from its premises. They told kings and queens they had no business in the Chamber. That also goes for any outside interest. The whole Chamber is cleared if one member yells out ‘I spy strangers’ at any intruder. No businessmen use the MPs’ seats. That has remained so in unwritten law for the best part of four hundred years. Many hard and difficult centuries of struggle preceded it.
Even when the Lords are about to summon the Commons MPs to the House of Lords to hear Queen Elizabeth II in crown and robes deliver the Throne Speech at the State opening of Parliament, the Commons rebuff any intrusion. They deliberately shut the doors on the nose of the royal messenger known as Black Rod. He has to strike three times on the great doors with his staff and request their presence in ‘the other place’. That is why the independence of parliament and defence of democracy is a common feature in Commonwealth countries.
The Black Rod tradition dates ‘only’ from 1642 when parliamentary independence was already well understood as necessary. King Charles I tried to have his men enter Parliament. They were shut out. When a few years later Charles went too far again, Parliament tried him in Court in its great hall and decided to chop off his head for treason.
Would the British public stomach the sight of banksters lolling on the red leather benches of the House of Lords? Could property speculators take over the Woolsack, the seat of the Lord Chancellor?
In spite of the recent scandals about expenses, British MPs would be ashamed to hire out the Westminster Parliament to sectoral interest groups. Many still feel they should represent all the people. They would not let the Houses be taken over by the traders, bankers, trade unionists, industrialists or consumer groups either.
The business of government and parliaments should be separate from the business of interests groups. It should also be seen to be separate. And reinforced by law as required.
However, Europarliamentarians feel that standards that brave leaders have over a couple of thousand years fought for with blood, reasoning and fervent appeals for justice may be all right for an off-shore island. Maybe also for some other national parliaments of EU States. But not for them. They feel they are above such common European values. When it comes to the main European levers of economic, financial and democratic control of the Parliament of the world’s largest trading power, the EU, different rules apply. NO STANDARDS ARE NECESSARY.
The European Parliamentarians, apparently, feel no shame at this wanton display. Parliament is a House for hire. They seem to have lost any concept about having FIVE independent democratic institutions. The MEPs have lost their way. They should show the businesspeople where they should go. Unfortunately they do not seem to know.David Heilbron Price
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