Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

Americans in Brussels. Globoregulators: European bureaucrats have been making things hot lately for American businesses and their lobbyists.

Newsweek International  Issues 2003


Issues 2003 - Life has never been easy for American lobbyists in Brussels, the capital of a unifying continent proud not to be like America. Nonetheless, representatives of a U.S. electronics trade group were taken aback when an official of the European Commission, the Continental bureaucracy, interrupted a meeting on how to dispose of used electronics with an attack on George Bush. Judging from Bush's stand on global warming, the official volunteered, "no American businesses cared about the environment." Says Michelle O'Neill, a Hewlett-Packard lobbyist who was there, "It stopped us in our tracks."

THERE HAVE BEEN MANY such stops of late. After Europe's top antitrust cop, Mario Monti, blocked the merger of General Electric and Honeywell last year, on grounds not recognized in U.S. law, business took notice. Europe was emerging as a global regulator to reckon with. Despite recent court setbacks (all involving European mergers), Monti is still moving aggressively to restrain Microsoft's market power, a campaign all but dead in the States. Monopoly is only the start. Euro-regulators are tightening rules on such matters as chemical safety, emissions trading and advertising restrictions that go far beyond what American businesses face at home.

In part, this is a product of a distinctly different European political culture. In Washington, "bureaucracy" and "big government" are still, by and large, terms of scorn. Not so in Europe-or at least in Brussels. The European Union is big government incarnate. All laws emerge from the European Commission bureaucracy, which has no need for campaign contributions and no use for corporate lobbyists.

Things were different a few years ago. In spring 2000, European leaders met in Lisbon and vowed to build a high-tech economy clearly modeled on the United States. But since the tech-market crash and the corporate scandals that followed, the American way has been out of style. This, and Bush's perceived willingness to buck global opinion, leaves Europeans increasingly unwilling to listen to American pitches on deregulation. It will be a long time before Europeans are willing "to swallow what the Americans tell them about the way things are going to go," said Giles Merritt of Friends of Europe, a think tank funded by the EU.

In one recent case, the Americans were virtually told to go home. Last year the Commission began drafting a new rule requiring that more than 30,000 chemicals be safety-tested by their makers, a task the industry estimates will cost it $7 billion. Incensed, U.S. executives were ready to fly to Brussels, until lobbyists for the European chemical industries urged them not to come. "It was the usual European concern that Americans have no idea how Brussels works," said Eamonn Bates, a lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council.

Tony Spalding, General Motors' lobbyist in Brussels, says part of his job is explaining to Detroit why the EU issues such new rules as one requiring automakers to pay the cost of disposing of old cars (about $100 per vehicle). "I get my leg pulled because they see Europe as regulation upon regulation upon regulation," he said. James Lovegrove, a British lobbyist for the American Electronics Association, says that for Americans in Brussels these days, "just getting in the door is tricky." After its Honeywell defeat last year, General Electric set up a European headquarters in Brussels with an Italian boss (the same nationality as Monti). GE says the choice of Ferdinando Beccalli had nothing to do with Honeywell.

The Brussels scene may be changing. Many Europeans are themselves upset by the authority wielded by the unelected Commission. The European Parliament is gaining more real power, which may open up opportunities for American lobbyists who are already starting to import Washington tactics, like the revolving door (hiring former officials as lobbyists) and wining and dining policymakers. Pharmaceutical firms including GlaxoSmithKline mobilized patient groups to help win approval to patent genes. One U.S. investment-bank lobbyist brags he has former high officials on retainer in many European countries. We can get access to anybody we want to," he says. The American way is far from dead, even in Brussels.

All Material Copyright Samuel Lowenberg