Out of Europe: The lobbyists learn to aim fast and low at legislation

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A FEW MONTHS ago the trustbusters at the European Commission decided to impose heavy fines on a group of shipping companies, many of them French, found to have been operating a cartel on the routes between southern Europe and Africa.

But just before the fines came up in front of the 17 members of the Commission for formal approval, a call came through to Jacques Delors' office from Paris. It was a highly placed member of the French government and a man who could certainly be helpful to Mr Delors should he ever want, as many people believe he does, to become president of France.

However, this man had not telephoned to pass the time of day: he wanted a word in the ear of the Commission President about those cripplingly high fines, which could be so embarrassing to the French government.

There is no suggestion that either Mr Delors or his French contact acted improperly in that case. Fines were, in the end imposed, though smaller ones than the competition watchdogs had asked for. But the incident is a reminder of the fact that, although the unelected officials of the EC may be distant, they are nowhere near as aloof from business or politics as many people believe.

When they are sworn in, commissioners renounce their allegiance to their country in favour of a higher allegiance to Europe itself, but that does not mean they must also renounce their knowledge of their own country, or their sympathy for its problems. On the contrary: their very lack of elected authority makes them vulnerable. Only a very unwise or very unambitious commissioner dares to ignore pressure from his own capital.

For the EC's 12 national governments, therefore, the Community is a very open and very easily pressured organisation. As a proposal works its way through the machinery towards becoming law, there are numerous points where it can be influenced, of which the college of commissioners itself is only the best known.

There are also the juristes-linguistes, the linguistic lawyers whose job is to check the legal jargon of EC legislation in each of the nine language versions. Earlier this year the British government succeeded in effectively removing from the Maastricht treaty a provision that would have given Labour-controlled councils in Britain an automatic right to sit on a key EC committee. It did this by a discreet change to a single word in the Maastricht text during the translation process, after the treaty negotiations were already complete.

Even the quasi-independent EC Court of Auditors, a financial watchdog whose job is to root out waste and corruption in the spending of European taxpayers' money, is not immune to outside influence. A recent investigation on irregular subsidies to cheese exporters, which might have embarrassed one national government, was the object of a vicious row inside the court even before a report was issued.

But the labyrinth of the European institutions is much harder for private individuals and companies to negotiate than it is for governments. That is why there are several thousand lobbyists in Brussels who make a good living from explaining the EC to the outside world.

Only a few of them list themselves in the telephone book as lobbyists. The rest are consultants, business associations, lawyers, or political advisers. But on the average autumn weekday, the city's best restaurants - most of them in the old town, but some near the Berlaymont building that used to be the Commission's headquarters - are thronged with men in suits talking animatedly about directives and regulations. If the atmosphere is like Washington DC, that is no coincidence.

Lobbying the EC, the experts say, is like throwing a cricket ball. You should aim low and fast: that is to say, start trying to influence legislation early on, when it is still being drafted by a very junior official. Wait a month or two, and the proposal will have become firmer and the more senior officials now in charge of it will be more reluctant to change it.

Wait another few months until the commissioners themselves have their hands on it and only very heavy pressure from a cabinet minister will help. The European Parliament is little easier: although it often has a legal right to offer an opinion, the parliament is too prone to quixotic political gestures to be taken altogether seriously in Brussels.

Parliamentary questions are only sometimes useful: often, the Commission takes more than half a year before it gets around to answering them.

Proof of the fast-and-low rule could be seen earlier this year in two key pieces of environmental legislation. When the EC started thinking about using a carbon tax to reduce exhaust emissions, US oil companies brought in their big guns straight away. 'They were entirely counter-productive,' said one EC official. 'Not only did they rub people up the wrong way; they also woke Jacques Delors up to the fact that the tax was a good thing.'

A much less dramatic job, by contrast, was done by the firm that produces those rigid cartons for milk and orange juice. When the Tetrapak, which is actually made up of layers of paper, metal and plastic, was threatened by a new EC directive on packaging waste, the firm simply went to explain to the Commission how its products worked, why they were good for the planet and how the proposal would hurt them. 'They were open and helpful, and changes were made to remove the discrimination against them,' said the official.