April 20, 2018
There is a kind of inevitability when the Commission uses its right of legislative and regulatory initiative. The more the process is framed by impact assessments, consultations and scientific opinions, the more the EU moves towards a subjective approach to law and regulation. Today, it is clichés, conventional wisdom and public opinion that rules in decision-making. We are not lacking for recent examples to demonstrate this.
The most emblematic file is, of course, glyphosate! Reason never prevailed at all in this very newsworthy case, where scientific agencies (EFSA & ECHA) were scorned, a Health Commissioner shirked his responsibilities and a German vote swung from ‘abstain’ to ‘yes’ in extremely opaque circumstances. Disappointed by a decision that was perfectly legal but contrary to MEPs’ beliefs, the European Parliament has set up a special PEST Committee, whose name is suggestive of its stance. The fear is that the PEST Committee will reach a conclusion before having the debate.
In the same vein, the fate of the neonicotinoids (pesticides suspected of decimating bee populations) has seen more equitable treatment. The EU’s scientific agencies are clearly hostile to these products, but the expected ban will probably be introduced without any nuance: all main crops will be affected, even those that do not attract bees. Worse, the use of neonicotinoids in tiny doses for coating seeds will also be prohibited.
Let us move from the world of chemicals to traditional agriculture, where the draft CAP reform seems to be going in the direction of obligatory parcel crop rotation. Under the current system, rotation is mandatory on farms, but derogations have been granted on condition of positive environmental practices such as winter soil cover. Maize producers have spoken up, explaining that in certain limited areas, maize monoculture is a historical reality. In support of their arguments they presented many technical studies indisputably showing that expanding parcel crop rotation would have negative implications for the environment. But nothing is done. Cliché trumps science and facts.
This primacy of cliché over reason reigns in every domain. Under pressure from public perception, the Commission has proposed a drastic reduction in first-generation biofuels. Recall the quote of DG ENER Director Marie Donnelly who said that public opinion is just as important as facts. Based supposedly on the interests of patients, the Berlaymont is also considering proposing a waiver from the Supplementary Protection Certificate (SPC) that would allow companies to manufacture generic medicines for export outside the EU, even during the normal period of patent protection for the original product. This neglects the fact that maintaining R&D budgets for developing more effective and innovative medicines requires robust protection of intellectual property rights.
Who is taking the decisions? Who do lobbyists have to speak to?
This approach has disastrous consequences. Everywhere else in the world, countries are investing in fundamental research and development. They see it as the cornerstone of their growth and of their citizens’ well-being. To go against science is to go against progress. It means living in the past instead of looking to the future. It means forcing big companies to relocate their research centres and potentially their production activities. It means weakening Europe.
For lobbying, the consequences are three-fold: the primacy of the cliché is a gift to NGOs who, not being faced with challenges of efficiency or international competition, can excessively demand things that, while interesting, are not in step with the actual needs of our societies. A proactive NGO logic results, allowing them to set the EU agenda while industry systematically adopts a defensive (and therefore losing) strategy. In this the Institutions are complicit and even supportive.
But the third consequence is the one most directly related to the lobbyist’s role. The dominance of the cliché in decision-making disrupts all the classical processes and imposes itself as an imperative societal demand. There is no longer any power, but instead a kind of soft culture where nobody knows who is in charge anymore and nobody knows who to convince or where to act. Paralysis of industrial lobbying is the outcome, and that is not good news.