Brexit: failing to take back control from corporations

Vicky Cann from the Corporate Europe Observatory talks about how corporations may continue to influence government policy decisions long after Brexit.

The mantra “take back control” was repeated ad nauseam in the EU referendum campaign and can mean all things to all people. But wholly under-explored during the campaign was the need to “take back control” from corporations. Whether it is the EU preparing for life without the UK, or the UK preparing for life outside the EU, the case to rescue public policy-making from corporate capture by corporations has never been stronger.

Concern about the power that corporations wield over public policy-making at the EU level has, in recent times, crystallised around the proposals for an EU-US trade deal (TTIP). Activists on both sides of the Atlantic have campaigned to expose the impacts of such a deal on consumer protection, health and environmental policies, and on the policy-making process itself. But there can be little doubt that the European Commission’s trade department, responsible for negotiating TTIP, is beholden to big business; in fact its former deputy Director-General has spoken of a “systemic collusion between the Commission and business circles”. And this isn’t just because corporations have more meetings with EU decision-makers, although they do. This is because corporate lobbyists have, from the start, helped to co-write the deal, including in the areas of chemicals, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and others, as detailed in the "Democracy for Sale award" for the business lobby that has had the most privileged access and influence over the deal. We need to take back control of trade policy from corporations; civil society’s proposal for an Alternative Trade Mandate sets out what this could look like.

TTIP exemplifies the problem of the corporate capture of EU decision-making, but it is far from an isolated example. The regulation of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, so-called trade secrets, the Dieselgate affair and control of vehicle emissions, and a host of other areas investigated by Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), show that numerous policy proposals at the EU level are being designed for, and with substantial input by, big business interests.

Lobbyists representing businesses and trade associations dominate the lobbying scene in Brussels, making up 75 per cent of all lobby meetings held with the Commission elite and more than 80 per cent in certain areas such as financial regulation or the internal market, according to 2015 research by ALTER-EU, despite a promise that commissioners should seek to ensure “an appropriate balance and representativeness in the stakeholders they meet”. CEO research shows that 80 per cent of the meetings of Miguel Arias Cañete, Commissioner for Climate and Energy, and Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President for the Energy Union, were with the private sector, with Big Energy dominating.

Meanwhile, concerns remain about how business interests dominate some of the Commission’s expert groups, which are often involved in advising on the drafting of new laws. And now, new rules for how the Commission consults on policy proposals threaten to allow greater, earlier and more frequent access for big business to influence policy-making.

But over the summer of 2016, it is the revolving door that has become the most obvious demonstration of this corporate capture, when former Commission President Barroso, who was at the helm of the Commission during the financial crisis, has become chairman of Goldman Sachs International, the investment bank cum lobbyist-extraordinaire against financial services regulation. Meanwhile, former digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes has joined Uber and Salesforce; indeed the Brussels revolving door never ceases to spin. The Commission’s response to the resulting concerns of the European Ombudsman, MEPs, member states, the public and even EU staff members has been lamentable.

Post-Brexit UK could choose to reject the path of corporate capture and instead seek to put democracy, transparency and public interest decision-making at the heart of its agenda. But don’t hold your breath. Ultimately Brexit is likely to lead to less regulation on business, rather than progressive re-regulation. While there are different views about what the UK’s future relationship with the EU’s single market should be, strong rhetoric about free trade is likely to reassure big corporate interests who are already enjoying cosy chats with leading Brexit negotiators. In the meantime the rush to the post-Brexit lobby industry, via the revolving door, by former senior players in the Cameron governments (Francis Maude, William Hague, Craig Oliver to name a few) is fully underway.
On this evidence, post-Brexit UK is likely to be as corporate-driven as the EU it seeks to leave.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Unlock Democracy