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.
But it’s actually much more important and consequential and, from the standpoint of 20th century progressive ideology, much more disturbing. Right from the beginning, EU institutions were built on an anti-populist foundation. The tragic history of populist nationalism in 19th and 20th century Europe (wars, fascism, genocides, mass ethnic cleansing) drove Europeans to try to build a political system that would be proof against these passions. The multi-national EU and its goal of an ever-closer union were the capstone of this project. Cosmopolitan elites would create a new, transnational Europe.It’s a noble dream and the EU has been a great success in many ways. But there’s always a price to be paid.The problem is that a vast multinational bureaucracy that is largely ring-fenced from populist pressures is very vulnerable to sophisticated corporate lobbying. The European Parliament, an assemblage by and large of non-entities and has-beens—A and B listers in Europe run for national office; the European Parliament is stuffed with grade C and below—is also ideal from the point of lobbyists.Voters generally do not understand how extremely complicated and multilayered EU system actually works. Nor do most European news outlets do a very good job of covering the sausage-making process in Brussels.This is a perfect environment for corporate interest groups to flourish in, and the rise of K-Street culture in Brussels was inevitable as the EU gathered more power to itself. The bureaucrat who wants to cash in on his knowledge by getting a well paid corporate job on retiring; the obscure legislator who wants a job for a relative or help of some kind with his political career: they can both turn to sympathetic lobbyists (many of whom were once in the position of the people they now lobby and so know exactly how to seduce and inveigle) for help.To make things even more complicated, the bureaucrats and legislators of the EU come from many different cultures with many different understandings about what corruption is and how bad it is. Products of patronage based political cultures in the Mediterranean rub shoulders with people rooted in more austere political cultures in places like Scandinavia. There is no strong Brussels consensus about right and wrong, and because public interest in the intricate maneuverings of EU governance is low, press oversight is weak.Add to that the weak accountability of EU funds and budget processes overall (auditors regularly find huge problems with the way EU funds are spent but the system stubbornly resists change), and you have a perfect environment for the luxuriant growth of a K-Street culture and a system of effective corporate lobbying.As power shifts from national governments to the EU, the focus of lobbying efforts by European and non-European cultures will shift from Paris, London and Berlin to Brussels. As that shift happens, Brussels will likely prove even more hospitable to the lobbyists and influence peddlers than the national capitals. In constructing an anti-populist European system, the architects of the European Union, quite inadvertently, laid the foundations for a paradise of special interests.The games will now begin.[Euro image courtesy of Shutterstock]