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Home / Journal / Whose green backlash? Taking the wheel from corporate lobbyists

Friends of the Earth Europe’s Kim Claes on tackling the vested interests blocking green transition in the EU.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen at the UN climate change conference in 2021, alongside former UK Prime Minister and erstwhile climate sceptic Boris Johnson. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
DECEMBER 13: Fossil Fuel Phase Out action at the UN Climate Change Conference COP28 at Expo City Dubai on December 13, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by COP28 / Andrea DiCenzo)

The past few months were marked by an unprecedented push against regulations, those linked to the EU Green Deal and other social and environmental laws. The recently leaked EU strategic agenda, which defines EU’s priorities for the next mandate, confirmed this trend. It reveals major backtracking on topics like the climate crisis, biodiversity collapse, and pollution – the biggest threats our societies face.

In February, Ursula von der Leyen announced the scrapping of proposals to halve the use of pesticides in agriculture by 2030. The EU’s nature restoration law, launched to revitalise 30% of natural ecosystems before 2030, hangs by a thread after two years of negotiations.There was also the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) saga last months. In this case, the directive survived, but the political agreement was severely watered-down. 

Ahead of the European elections in June, at which climate-sceptic radical-right parties are expected to make significant gains, EU politicians seem to be giving in to deregulation lobbying. They claim that green policies are to blame for the economic malaise. Can we speak of the usual election fever or is there more to it? Are EU citizens really fed up with climate regulations and overly rigid environmental laws?

“Politicians were and are still welcoming fossil fuel companies as advisers instead of arsonists.”

Last month, several public opinion surveys in Germany, France and Poland revealed that most people in these countries support more ambitious policies to tackle the climate emergency as long as sufficient compensation is provided and everyone contributes in proportion to their financial ability. So if the “green backlash” is not really in citizens’ interest, for whom is this phasing out of regulation being done? This touches on a deeper festering wound within the EU institutions: the overbearing power of lobbies and vested interests.

Fossil Free Politics 

Let’s zoom in to the fossil industry, given their lobbying work is emblematic of a wider structural problem. Who did President von der Leyen turn to for advice when the EU sought to reduce its dependency on Russian oil and gas? Exactly, the big European oil and gas companies. From the onset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, fossil fuel 

companies have enjoyed unprecedented access to decision making, taking a lead in Europe’s energy crisis response whilst scaling back on their own climate commitments. The same industry that has ensured Europe’s continued fossil fuel dependence was advising, manipulating and threatening decision-makers to ‘solve’ an energy crisis caused by fossil fuel dependence by making Europe even more dependent on fossil fuels. 

Politicians were and are still welcoming fossil fuel companies as advisers instead of arsonists, failing to recognise their vested interests and their role in creating, prolonging, and profiting from the energy and climate crisis. Fossil fuel lobbyists’ role in shaping REPowerEU has meant a programme ostensibly focused on energy efficiency and accelerating the clean energy transition has instead secured the fossil fuel industry’s future business. In the name of urgency, they were pushing for ever more gas infrastructure and gas-based projects, while weakening social measures that would have helped millions.

Thanks to their oversized influence, they have stalled vital e political action on energy markets, reaping billions in profits. Since Russia’s invasion, Shell, BP, TotalEnergies, Chevron, and ExxonMobil have pocketed over €200 billion in profits, while millions of EU citizens have been left to pay the price through higher household bills, struggling to heat their houses. 

“The EU’s inability to shield people from corporate greed has fueled widespread discontent in civil society. This fear and frustration are in turn fueling the rise of the far-right.”

Remarkably, Europe’s oil and gas multinationals and energy giants have always had considerable lobbying power in Brussels, and the EU institutions often proved quite willing to invite them to the table when it came to EU energy policy or priority investments. An analysis by Friends of the Earth Europe published in June 2022 showed that the von der Leyen Commission had met more than 500 times – more than once every other day – with the fossil fuel industry or with groups with fossil fuel membership in the first half of its 5 year mandate… and counting.

People over Polluters

The fossil fuels lobby is only one dramatic example. The increasing influence exerted by corporate lobbyists on the political agenda in Europe is resulting in a loss of democracy in EU decision-making and the postponement, weakening, or blockage of urgently needed progress on social and environmental reforms. The EU’s inability to shield people from corporate greed has fueled widespread discontent in civil society. This fear and frustration are in turn fueling the rise of the far-right. 

In the framework of the Fossil Free Politics Campaign, responding to undue fossil fuel company influence in EU decision-making, over 100,000 signed a petition to kick big polluters out of politics, and 100 civil society and trade unions raised concern last October. As a result of the petition, the first-ever public hearing into the fossil fuel industry’s responsibility for the energy crisis was held at the European Parliament ). One of the panelists during the hearing, Anna Gilmore, Professor of Public Health and Director of the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath, warned that the fossil fuel industry was using the same lobbying and PR tactics as the tobacco industry.

That’s why one of the main demands of  the Fossil Free Politics Campaign is to institute a firewall to restrict undue influence of the fossil fuel lobby over climate and energy policy-making (like the firewall imposed on the tobacco industry), keeping Commission advisory groups free from corporate control, and ensuring that EU decision-making centres on the voices of groups representing the public interest. 

Power to the People

For years, Friends of the Earth Europe and its allies have been drawing attention to the excessive influence of big corporations on EU policy-making, resulting in decisions which put profits ahead of people and the planet. Nowhere does this become more apparent than with the lobbying efforts of the fossil fuel industries at the European institutions. 

In times of multiple crises and disinformation and excessive lobbying forces, a strong climate and civil society movement is needed to expose these excesses, denounce conflicts of interests and hold politicians to account.  

Now, more than ever, we must advocate for social and environmental justice at the heart of the EU. Although it is a tough battle, the years of campaigning of civil society are also reaping successes , such as the recent decision of the EU to leave the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT).  

Corporate influence threatens European democracy, obstructing a swift and just green transition. Instead of aiding people in moving away from fossil fuels, corporate lobbying subsidises polluters and prioritises profits.  It’s time to reclaim people’s rights.

Kim Claes is corporate capture and Fossil Free Politics campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe. The ‘Fossil Free Politics’ campaign was launched in 2019 by almost 200 civil society organisations, and is calling for formal limits to the power of fossil fuel lobbyists in Europe in the same way we have for the tobacco industry. Friends of the Earth Europe, in collaboration with Corporate Europe Observatory, Food and Water Europe and Greenpeace are coordinating this campaign. More info: fossilfreepolitics.org