Brussels Business: Screening and Q&A

By Jim Treadway

Once more, the power of money and its threat to democracy became the focus at Frontline, where the documentary The Brussels Business was shown on Friday evening and followed by a Q&A with directors Friedrich Moser and Mattieu Lietaert.

The Brussels Business analyzes the European Union’s growing lobby industry in Belgium’s capital, now the world’s second largest lobbying presence behind Washington, D.C.  The movie traces how corporations, rather than politicians, have ultimately pulled the strings in creating and directing the EU’s Monetary Union.  

Co-director Friedrich Moser told the audience:

"We were digging for what was actually the biggest lobby success of the European Union, and it’s the European Union itself."

Olivier Hoedeman, a corporate watchdog based in Brussels, argues in the film that:

"Twenty years of deregulation and liberalization […] a single market, a monetary union… [and downsizing] public services" were all part of a neoliberal agenda that business leaders used the EU to achieve."

In the mid-1990s, Hoedeman began working to expose corporate power in EU lobbying after noticing: 

"So many examples of new policies that were basically captured by industry, by industry lobbying."

During the Q&A, Moser and co-director Matthieu Lietaert emphasized two keys to a democratic EU that isn’t coopted by corporations:  transparency, and fair balance.  Lietaert noted:

"In Brussels, you have six-hundred lobby groups working for corporate interests. [But] you have less than twenty groups in the interest of society and NGOs." 

As Hoedeman asserts in the film:

"The question is: how many of the MEPs are defending the interests of the people, and how many are defending the interests of big business?"

The Brussels Business highlights the failure of European Commissioner Sim Kallas’ initiative to require lobbies to join a transparent register, and it recounts the near-passage of a 1998 law that severely weakened governments’ capacity to pass legislation that constrained corporations.  

The law was blocked only when its contents were leaked and made public, an NGO-fuelled firestorm of protest ensued before the vote, and France finally vetoed it.

The directors ended the evening by sharing their next project: an online game that lets users "play the lobbyist," thus engaging citizens with the weekly votes and debates in the European Parliament. Lietaert explained:

"You go online, and you start voting […]  Suddenly we tell Brussels, ‘hey, we’re watching you, and here is our voice.’  And then you can enter a dialogue […]  This is, for us, one of the big problems with democracy in Brussels […] there is no dialogue any more.  With the internet, we create that.  It would be 5, maybe ten minutes per week […] We are looking for funding for that."