On the Lobby-Go-Round
In a letter to his constituents published in the Spectator during the 1975 referendum campaign on the UK's membership of the Common Market, Tony Benn outlined five 'basic democratic rights' that were 'fundamentally altered by Britain’s membership of the European Community'. The fifth of them was the right of citizens to dismiss our political masters. As the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, put it last year, 'there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties.' Nowhere is this more obvious than in Juncker's Commission, the body that governs EU affairs without needing a parliamentary majority. Effective power devolves on the commission and Brussels's smoothly oiled lobby-go-round.
Commissioners are nominated, one per member state, by government leaders. Often, as with Neil Kinnock and Roy Jenkins, they are clapped-out politicos. Others, such as Lord Hill of Oareford, the current UK commissioner, were never elected to start with. Hill and David Cameron worked together for John Major's government. In 1998, Hill co-founded the PR and lobbying firm Quiller Consultants; clients with government contracts include PricewaterhouseCoopers and the 'welfare to work' contractors A4e.
Given a peerage by David Cameron in May 2010, Hill became an education minister and oversaw the sell-off of a Cornish school's playing fields to Tesco, a Quiller client (Quiller was taken over by Huntsworth in 2006, but Hill retained an undisclosed stake). 'The proposed development would significantly enhance the learning experience of the pupils at the Academy,' he wrote. Lobbying is always easier if you can sit on both sides of the table.
Since 2014, Hill has been the commissioner for Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union. The portfolio's a biggie, as the EU plans to integrate capital markets across the union by 2019. Part of the idea is to expand investment vehicles for business to free up bank capital for small firms and personal loans. Hill was no sooner in post than he put out a green paper on the deregulation of Europe's capital markets: 'We want to get the market for high quality securitisation going again in Europe,' he said. A commission 'fact sheet' from last year manages to avoid referring at all to the part played by securitised sub-prime loans in the 2008 crash, even though the formula for bond creation – fractionalising bundles of loans on a risk-graded basis – remains the same.
'Lots of brainy people', Hill said, 'think it is possible to come up with a framework that will be more transparent, and more stable and enable people to see more clearly where the risk is.' Hill and the commission seem blithely confident that a risk assessment regime can be put in place, its spectacular failure before the crash notwithstanding. In a speech in March, Hill called for 'reduced bank capital requirements for securitisations'. No doubt brainy people in Hill's 'cabinet' are busy devising a plan for neutralising asset toxicity in the coming period.
Between December 2014 and March this year, in his capacity as commissioner, Hill held more than 160 meetings with lobbyists, including such players as HSBC, Goldman Sachs and the British Bankers' Association, as well as the Association for Financial Markets in Europe (AFME), a lobbying group which spends around €7 million annually (in total the UK finance sector spends at least €34 million on EU lobbying). The ostensible goal is to diversify investment by reducing European firms' reliance on bank capital rather than equity financing, but the underlying agenda seems to be to facilitate high-risk investment. As the AFME's chief executive Simon Lewis puts it, the goal is 'to foster a stronger culture of responsible risk-taking'; Lewis deplores European 'risk aversion' and the lack of openings for venture capitalists compared with the US.
The finance sector is but one head of the European lobbying hydra, with about 2500 organisations and 15,000 individuals active in Brussels. The European Round Table of Industrialists drafts prospectuses that the Commission has on occasion adopted more or less wholesale, as with the Trans-European Networks infrastructure project.
Before he was elected in 2010, David Cameron said that corporate lobbying was 'the next big scandal waiting to happen'. He was talking about corporate pressure on MPs at Westminster. But, as Benn would have said, at least we can throw them out.