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European politics: show me the money: ‘that lovely little seat on the board of Royal Dutch Shell’

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Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Dutch ‘Minister President’ Wim Kok

RadioNertherlands.nl: European politics: show me the money

Commentary by Robert Chesal

03-04-2008

Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi leads the polls ahead of a snap election, and a comeback is likely after 20 months in opposition. Europeans used to shake their heads in disbelief at the electoral successes of the media mogul from Milan. But these days, the big money politics he popularised is gaining ground, in London, Paris, Berlin… and beyond.

In terms of electoral politics, Italy has long been the laughing stock of western Europe. After World War Two, it built up an unrivalled reputation for instability, seeing the rise and fall of 60 governments – nearly one per year on average – until Silvio Berlusconi pulled off what was thought impossible, by managing to stay in power for a full five-year term. Despite that, Mr Berlusconi did little for Italy’s reputation.

His priorities while serving as prime minister looked remarkably similar to his agenda in the corporate boardroom. Profit, power, impunity…it was the mogul’s tireless serving of his own interests rather than the public good, which made outsiders wonder: why do they keep voting for him?

Unpresidential

But if others are still laughing behind Italy’s back these days, it’s got a decidedly hollow sound. All over Europe, government leaders have shed their traditional taboo on big money and are profiting handsomely.

The examples are rife. Tony Blair left 10 Downing Street in January, destination Wall Street and a part-time advisorship with JPMorgan. Expected pay: one million pounds sterling a year. That’s leaving aside, for the moment, the lucrative lecture circuit and a possible EU post.

Or take Sarkozy if you like. His rich friends did – out on a yacht – for a post-election mini-break that sparked cries of unpresidential foul. Since then he’s made a point of hobnobbing with the rich and famous. Oh, and marrying them too.

And perhaps you’ve forgotten the Schroeder scam: a deal in which the German chancellor gave state guarantees to the financing of a Russian-German pipeline, just days before he left office. His next stop? Chairman of the pipeline’s board. His salary? Well, that information is hard to find. Mr Schroeder, an experienced lawyer, had a gag order imposed on a rival politician over the deal, so perhaps it’s no wonder that his earnings are not public knowledge. Schroeder’s shrewder, if you’ll excuse the pun.
 
Guilt complex

And just in case you thought the smaller fish could get away while we concentrated on the big sharks, nuh uh. We saw you, Wim Kok, quietly swimming your way across the pond after leaving your PM post in The Hague. Where did you end up? In that lovely little seat on the board of Royal Dutch Shell.

That was years ago, but even today your successor at the helm of the Dutch Labour Party finds himself having to make amends for what you did. Why else do you think Wouter Bos shouts so loudly about capping the incomes of corporate CEOs? It’s called a guilt-by-association complex. Poor guy. You’d almost wish him a nicely paid corporate post too, once he leaves politics.

Cocktails, anyone?

Of course the issue is much wider than a few greedy politicians. The real problem is that politics and money are becoming more closely entwined at every level, and not just in your local European capital. In Brussels, the lobbying machinery already rivals Washington’s army of Political Action Committees (a.k.a. the Pac-Men).

Brussels has well over 1000 lobby groups employing some 20,000 lobbyists. They influence decision-making in dozens of key policy areas including energy, defence spending, environmental safety and public health. PR firms wine and dine the bureaucrats, or threaten them if necessary, to get their way. They even play a role in the drafting of European Parliament legislation; substantial parts of resolutions and amendments are written by lobbyists, not MEPs.

The pro-business bloc – a combination of politicians and lobbyists, it can be hard to tell them apart – is pushing to deregulate and privatise every area of industry and is one of the most powerful forces in the EU. The European Commission, the Council of Ministers and the parliament: all of them are deeply susceptible to a powerful cocktail: one part power, two parts money, shake and serve.

So next time you look at Silvio Berlusconi – if he happens to be celebrating another term as prime minister – and you consider pitying poor Italy… think again. And then look in your own backyard.

http://www.radionetherlands.nl/currentaffairs/region/europe/080403-europe-politicians 

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