Piero Valmassoi, a policy expert specialised in the platform economy and sustainable urban mobility, reports for the Gig Economy Project on the debate of the European Parliament on Uber lobbying practices on Wednesday [18 January], finding that it will be challenging to rebalance the access that big business enjoys at the highest levels of European policymaking.
On Wednesday 18 January, the plenary session of the European Parliament hosted a debate on Uber’s lobbying practices that were exposed by the Uber Files.
The debate comes at a very troubled moment for the European institutions, in particular the European Parliament, which is at the centre of the Qatargate corruption scandal which emerged last December and has seen several current and former members of the Parliament implicated, including the ex vice president Eva Kaili.
During the last month, members of the European Parliament and EU representatives have been extremely vocal in expressing their indignation at the practices adopted by third countries to exercise their influence on the European legislative process, invoking the need for new transparency rules and the enforcement of stronger transparency mechanisms. However, this scandal must lead us to a more profound reflection on the EU institutional design and its policy-making procedures.
In the last six months, both the Uber Files and the Qatargate have proved that European institutions and the decision-making process are particularly prone to being heavily influenced by the powerful. Not only foreign countries, but also by companies and industry groups that invest massive sums of money in corporate lobbying, with the objective of bending legislation to their interest. Most of the time, successfully.
Not even three months ago, Uber whistleblower Mark MacGann, whose revelations sparkled the publication of the Uber Files, received a standing ovation from MEPs at his hearing at the Employment and Social Affairs (EMPL) Committee of the European Parliament. That hearing has been repeatedly defined as a “historic moment’’, as Uber’s illegal lobbying practices were publicly exposed. In his statement, he especially highlighted the disproportionate power, financial resources and access that big tech companies enjoy towards the highest levels of national and supranational governance in Europe and beyond.
In the meantime, the EMPL Committee has managed to hammer out a positive compromise on the text proposed by rapporteur Elisabetta Gualmini, reached after difficult negotiations particularly with the EPP and Renew Europe. The text was finally approved by the parliamentary committee on December 12, together with the mandate for the European Parliament to enter interinstitutional negotiations with the Council of the European Union.
In response, under the leadership of the Swedish MEP Sara Skyttedal (EPP), a group of right-wing MEPs who have been close to the platforms throughout the negotiation process and have echoed their demands in committee meetings and in media articles, as well copypasted the platforms’ position papers in amendments to the Gualmini’s report, started on December 13 to collect signatures in order to challenge the mandate to enter the next phase of the intricate legislative process, trilogue negotiations. By January 11, it was confirmed that the sufficient number of signatures to challenge the mandate was reached and a plenary vote of the whole Parliament was therefore required. The vote was first scheduled on Thursday 19 January, then postponed to the 2nd of February, because of the national strike in France halting access to and from Strasbourg.
This is the context for the long-awaited plenary debate on Uber’s lobbying practices, which was held yesterday. MEPs from across the aisle highlighted their awareness of the allegations about Uber’s illegal lobbying practices in the debate and expressed a strong commitment to the need for “clear rules”, “transparency”, “accountability”, “the highest standards”, and proposed tools such as a “mandatory Transparency Register”.
One of the main common points that emerged from the statements of mostly, but not only, centre-right wing MEPs was that not all lobbying practices have a negative impact on policy-making and that “lobbying in itself is not bad”. By repeatedly using the expression “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”, these members sought to curb momentum in favour of serious reform. However, these MEPs were in the minority, as most sought to use the debate to make much bolder statements about corporate power in Brussels.
In this respect, the Parliament’s rapporteur of the Platform Work Directive, Elisabetta Gualmini (S&D), made a relevant remark: “pervasive systems of illegal lobbying” are put in place not only by authoritarian foreign countries, but also by multinational companies who enjoy “disproportionate” access compared to other interest representatives. Gualmini’s view, that the “Parliament’s corridors” are “full of lobbyists”, was in line with the testimony given by MacGann.
EPP shadow rapporteur Dennis Radtke, who has faced dissent from some of his own MEPs due to his support for the EMPL committee’s Platform Work Directive proposal, said the negotiations over the Directive were exemplar of the problem, adding that “at some point we reach a line where lobbying no longer represents something healthy and sound”. He spoke of “fake news and lies being spread with the purpose of undermining the work” of the EMPL Committee. He closed by raising an issue that should really be central in the Parliament’s debate on the platform economy: that is whether certain supposedly innovative business models, which can survive only by the hyper-exploitation of workers, should exist at all.
Unfortunately, many of his centre-right wing colleagues, mostly from the EPP and Renew Europe, do not share this view. Most of the MEPs who have been very active in the last months in channelling the platforms’ views were not present at this session. It is worth noting that the platforms’ influence on the liberals of the Renew Europe group was reflected by the fact that there was just one intervention from that group, Karen Melchior, and unsurprisingly that was in line with the platforms’ usual arguments.
The main question that emerges from this debate is whether it is possible, in the current EU institutional design, to find an effective way to throw out the bathwater while keeping the baby. That would imply the absolute need to address the disproportionate access by big business to European policy-makers, not only in labour issues, but across all policy fields. The reality is that Uber still retains a huge influence on policy-makers across institutions – especially compared to platform workers’ representatives – and its allies in the Parliament have still managed to succeed in putting to a vote the text of the Directive that was approved with a large majority in the EMPL Committee. Doubts on the efficiency of possible new transparency rules and mechanisms to address the problems of the imbalance in political access are more than legitimate, as this is a question that seems to be linked to more essential questions of power and institutional design in the EU.
The Parliament’s vote planned for February 2 on the text approved in the EMPL Committee will only be the next step in the long legislative process of the Platform Work Directive, while the Council has not yet agreed on the position that will be its starting point in interinstitutional negotiations. What is certain is that platforms will still fight tooth and nail to preserve their business and employment model, and the only way to stop them is for platform workers’ and their representatives to fight tooth and nail in response.
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