US-style lobbying descends on EU to move fracking issue

Gathered at the Brussels office of Covington & Burling, a prominent Washington-based firm, were some of its lawyers and lobbyists, along with executives from some of the world’s largest oil companies, including Chevron and Statoil. Their aim was to help shape the European Union’s policies on the gas and oil drilling technology known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
They were meeting with Kurt Vandenberghe, then a top environmental official for Europe and a prime player in the debate over fracking, which is even more contentious in Europe than in the United States.
The host that day in June was Jean De Ruyt, a former Belgian diplomat whose career stretched from central Africa to the inner sanctum of the European Union and who is now an adviser at Covington. He and others on the recently expanded lobbying team there have delivered at least four senior European Union policy makers to the firm’s doorstep in recent months, including a top energy official, who arrived in September with a copy of a draft fracking plan that has yet to be made public.
As the European Union has emerged as a regulatory superpower affecting 28 countries that collectively form the world’s largest economy, its policies have become ever more important to corporations operating across borders. In turn, the influence business in Brussels has become ever larger and more competitive, rivaled only by Washington’s.
No group is proving more aggressive in claiming a share of that business — and provoking more criticism — than Covington and a dozen other major international law firms, some of which have imported American practices to Brussels, the seat of European Union power, while also operating with fewer constraints than in the United States.
The rules here differ in significant ways — for starters, the European system is not greased by corporate campaign contributions, which are banned or strictly limited in many member countries. But the law firms have managed to win results for clients, which include chemical and energy companies, drug makers, Silicon Valley firms, Wall Street businesses and military contractors.
The firms are taking advantage of weak ethics rules in Brussels, including one that allows some former government officials to begin exploiting their connections the day they leave office.
A tradition in Washington, hiring insiders was relatively rare at law firms in Brussels until the American firms stepped up the recruiting of European politicians — including top officials at the European Commission, Parliament and Council, the three bodies that make up the government — with fat paychecks.
The firms are undercutting efforts to bring more transparency to lobbying in Brussels, citing lawyer-client confidentiality to evade a government-backed but voluntary disclosure effort. Covington, for example, refuses to identify its clients or whom it is lobbying, which it would have to do back home. It can keep secret the sessions with clients and regulators at its offices, which most American officials would have been prohibited from attending or at least required to disclose in the United States.
Some European officials, accuse the law firms of operating in the shadows.
“It’s unfair; it’s anticompetitive. There are people who want to do things secretly, and what they do is go to the law firms.”
Isabelle Durant, a vice president of the European Parliament from Belgium who served on the committee that three years ago helped create the voluntary disclosure program, also expressed concern. “I am not against lobbying, but I am against lobbying opacity,” she said. “We have to know who works for whom and how much money they are being paid.”
The goal of these negotiations is to “harmonize” the regulatory systems of the United States and Europe, so that companies can meet a single standard — worth hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, in savings for businesses, particularly if they can persuade negotiators to accept less strict rules in the process.
Law firm Hogan Lovells helped an American semiconductor company secure an exemption in European environmental law that allowed it to continue using a potentially hazardous substance in the computer chips it makes. The firm also helped a group of American chemical companies avoid having to retest products to meet a new chemical safety law.
Covington & Burling helped get an amendment to data privacy legislation that would ease restrictions on how companies are allowed to use certain personal data collected from consumers. The firm also recently successfully lobbied to weaken a proposed regulation intended to curb the ability of European pension funds to invest some of their money with private equity firms.
“The law firms are registered in the United States, but when they come to Europe suddenly they pretend they don’t know what a lobbying register is, and what their obligations are,”

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