March 12, 2015
This week the Risk Monger is participating in a panel debate on the power and influence of industry lobbies on EU decision-making. The headline panelist will be Matthieu Lietaert, writer and director of the anti-lobbying film: The Brussels Business. As I am not a fan of fiction, I had not bothered to see this film before (I also did not care to contribute money to anti-industry lobbying groups), but felt that it would not be responsible to not watch it prior to the debate. It was also now freely available on YouTube so I got out the popcorn.
As someone who has worked in the “Brussels Business” for almost two decades, at a large chemical company, one of the largest public affairs consultancies and at a significant EU trade association, I was expecting to see a few old friends and hear some interesting ideas. I was deeply disappointed. The film calls itself a documentary but it is nothing more than a dark dramatisation by angry groups running anti-industry lobbying campaigns. This is sadly not uncommon – many people are running around Brussels calling themselves journalists or documentarialists but they are doing nothing more than running or participating in lobbying campaigns, whether it is against big food companies, the chemical industry or, like the Brussels Business, against industry lobbying. I have highlighted the need for a transparency registry for journalists to stop this manipulation from fooling unsuspecting actors in the Brussels decision-making process.
Stars of the show
The main actors of the Brussels Business are members from the anti-industry lobby group, Corporate Europe Observatory. They provided the majority of interview time, research and support material (although surprisingly they did not factor into the credits much). When the members spoke, the film provided good lighting, clear sound and helpful graphic support. If one is curious about the objectivity of the film, when the lobbyists spoke, the lighting was shaded (after all, lobbyists crawl out of the shadows), with dramatic (almost hauntingly sinister) music with short clips leading into disturbingly grey scenes where we know that wrongdoing is going on.
So who were these lobbyists that we need to be afraid of? With 15,000 to 30,000 (why not, let us bump it up to 50,000) evil geniuses trolling the alleys and dark passageways of Brussels, it should be easy to find some lobbyists to expose. Well, rather disingenuously, this dramatic film focused on two rather unsuspecting natives, neither of which frankly carried much weight or validity.
The first was Keith Richardson – an actor from the Brussels of the 1980s and 1990s, and an elderly gentleman who was likely misled into thinking the producers were journalists wanting his reflections on the good old days of Brussels and the ERT (the European Round Table of Industrialists). His observations were charmingly dated but of no consequence to the Brussels of two decades later.
The main star lobbyist of the show was Pascal Kerneis – who seemed to willingly bring the film crew with him as he went about his Business of Brussels. We saw him making phone calls, shaking hands, exchanging business cards (all pretty sinister stuff) while at the same providing a monologue about how great it is to be a lobbyist as he drove around the dark and dirty streets of Brussels in his, gulp, Mercedes (evidently the car of choice for gangsters, drug dealers and lobbyists).
As it is far too much of a caricature to take seriously, I had to look up Kerneis and his organisation, the European Services Forum. The website gives no information about the structure of this great firm and their hundreds of lobbyists ensuring that the world of the service industry (according to Kerneis, he was representing 15% of European GDP) has a firm grip on the levers of European power. A quick glance at the Transparency Registry will show that this organisation, the European Services Forum, has only one registered lobbyist – Kerneis. Even their twitter feed is in Kerneis’ name. I got even more suspicious when the 1990s style website had a link to the Brussels Business movie proudly displayed on the homepage. Was this character planted?
The chief actors in this film are what were blandly referred to as “Stand-Ins” – the 13 names at the end of the film credits that were used to make the lobbying situations (those sinister card exchanges that stunk of influence) seem realistic. In other words, these 13 actors tried to recreate an impression of genuine lobbying and influence. Anyone who has spent some time in Brussels knows that these actors were there to dramatise a situation that does not exist – good cinema but a fiction nevertheless.
Taking historic liberties
What is most infuriating about making the Risk-Monger suffer through this 90 minute lobbying campaign against industry lobbying is the historic inaccuracies and anachronisation. It behooves me that a Canadian would need to correct a European with a PhD in political science on some simple points in European history, but I suppose someone must.
The Brussels Business is meant to reveal startling documents dug up by Corporate Europe Observatory (the heroes of this drama) about how business captured EU decision-makers in the 80s and 90s. But I think we have to go back and look at what the world of the Brussels was like at this time.
Brussels is an evolving concept. Today many think that Brussels exists to protect the planet from chemicals and CO2, keep food free from GMOs and protect citizens from dodgy industrial goods. This is naïve and without any historical credibility. The European Union was formed first as a Steel and Coal Union to rebuild a continent still suffering the effects of a devastating war. It then developed into a Common Market with the ideal that countries that trade with each other are less likely to go to war. The EU was then rebranded in the 80s as the European Economic Community, again, to help improve trade and business to compete with the Americans and Japanese. In other words, Brussels was created to help the business community develop, create jobs and have a strong platform on global trade negotiations. One must not forget that the Brussels Jacques Delors inherited was an insignificant and under-funded backwater, its parliament was a talking shop of has-beens with rubber stamps and its principle purpose was to encourage business cooperation and trade.
So to go back in time and show how the ERT were meeting and trying to influence Brussels in the 1980s and 90s as some sort of secret and sinister brotherhood capturing European governments against the interest of European citizens is historically incorrect and ethically questionable. Brussels was first and foremost created to help European industries develop – those against the single market and global trade are being deceptive by judging the past with present perceptions. The Brussels Business committed an academic error of trying to rewrite history from its own perspective to suit its political objective.
One thing that always amuses the Risk-Monger is how anti-industry activists never think about questioning the practices of their own NGO lobbyists. The film tries to present people from Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) as righteous combatants fighting evil. We are made to feel for them as they persevered in the Herculean task of trying to take on the massive Brussels Lobbyist Business Machine. These are PR-savvy activists who know how to give industry a black eye, but their tactics are as destructive as they are tiresome.
CEO has its roots in being against global trade, the single market and, frankly, European economic development. It grew out of the anti-globalisation Transnational Institute and continues its anarchist-oriented objectives under the guise of defending transparency and civil society. With its deep pockets from anti-industry foundations, CEO provided the content for the film to fit its narrow, anti-European investment perspective.
This leaves the final question: Is The Brussels Business a documentary or a dramatic fictional film (ie, activism)? As Internet communications tools are open to public diffusion, we have many examples of activist productions pretending to be documentaries. Journalism needs to take an objective approach (using legitimate representatives on all sides), respect history and put forward multiple views to allow individuals to make up their own minds. The bias implicit in the character choice, the presentation, historical interpretation and one-sidedness leads me to conclude that the Brussels Business is, rather, a work of cinematic political activism.
If you are in Brussels, you can see the Risk-Monger debating the influence of industry lobbying on a panel that includes the writer and director of The Brussels Business, Matthieu Lietaert. It will be in Auditorium 1, Université Saint-Louis on Thursday, 12 March 2015 at 18:00 (in French).