For decades the American chemical industry has put tens of thousands of substances on the market and into the environment with little interference from the U.S. government. What a surprise, then, to come up against the new Europe.
The European Union, concerned that it does not have health or environmental data on the majority of the compounds now in use, is crafting legislation that by 2005 will require the industry to conduct extensive safety tests on 30,000 common chemicals. At least 1,500 are expected to be banned or severely restricted in their use as a result. The industry estimates that the testing alone will cost it more than $7.5 billion.
"At present we are unwittingly testing chemicals on both living humans and animals," European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström told chemical-company executives in Brussels, Belgium, the EU capital, this spring. "It is high time to place the responsibility where it belongs: with industry."
The American companies -- and the Bush administration, which on their behalf continues to pressure the European Union to drop this matter -- are not used to such talk, much less such action. In Washington, corporations wielding insider connections and buckets of campaign cash are used to woo legislators and regulators. But as the Americans are finding out, that dynamic does not hold in Brussels.
When American chemical-industry executives wanted to fly to Brussels to quash the safety-testing legislation, their European counterparts told them to holster their Palm Pilots and stay home. "Their perception was, 'Here come the cowboys,'" says Fred McEldowney, who works on international issues at the American Chemistry Council, the Washington lobbying arm of manufacturers that includes Dow, DuPont and ExxonMobil.
This was not just a tactical dispute. It reflected a fundamental difference in the way Europe and America view the role of the state in the market economy and the role of corporations in public life.
Over the last few years, the European Union has put into effect a raft of far-reaching environmental and consumer-protection legislation that would be unimaginable in Washington: a moratorium on genetically modified foods; another on beef treated with growth hormone; a requirement that automakers and electronics manufacturers pick up the tab for disposing of their products in environmentally friendly ways; and a ban on the use of such common electronics manufacturing materials as mercury, lead and brominated flame retardants. It also recently upheld a prohibition on pharmaceutical company advertising and is debating whether to prohibit television commercials directed toward children.
U.S. companies will have to make some major adjustments if they want to do business in Europe's 340-million-person market -- or in its half-billion-person market next year, when the European Union is slated to add 10 new member countries.
The story of the European chemicals legislation is illustrative of American companies' fumbling so far. From the beginning, says Alain Perroy, chief lobbyist for the European chemicals industry, "we were all convinced in Europe that there was no way to get that legislation to disappear." And Perroy turned out to be right. But the Americans saw things differently. They thought the Europeans were practicing a kind of "preemptive surrender," in McEldowney's words.
The American Chamber of Commerce, which acts as the voice of U.S. industry in Brussels, initially opposed the whole notion of mandated chemical testing. The chamber relied on the kind of rhetoric about preserving competitiveness and "building upon industry's sense of responsibility" that has often carried the day in Washington. When the European Union nonetheless issued a white paper calling for industry-financed testing of 30,000 compounds, the Chamber of Commerce was forced to regroup. It issued an irritated response and turned to lobbying against particular provisions of the proposed legislation, arguing against an outright ban on chemicals found to be hazardous and pushing for a smaller bureaucracy and a looser time line for testing.
But these attempts at a limited rollback of the chemicals initiative were also unsuccessful, and by 2002, the chamber was mainly trying to keep the European Union from extending it. Meanwhile, the Europeans were talking about expanding the testing to all products with chemicals in them, which is to say, everything.
What was, and still seems to be, throwing corporate America off-kilter is what Wallström has called the "radical paradigm shift" between American and European thinking on these issues. According to the "precautionary principle," a doctrine enshrined in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty among EU members, governments should protect their populations against risk, even before all the data are compiled. The doctrine is a prescription for government intervention before harm occurs. By contrast, Washington generally doesn't pass broad regulatory overhauls unless there's concrete evidence of harm. U.S. laws that put new burdens on industry -- such as the Superfund or the recent accounting reform -- tend to be attempts to clean up disasters.
Europe's chemicals legislation "is a remarkable effort, because it is very expensive and it isn't in response to a public crisis," says Mary Graham, co-director of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government Transparency Policy Project.
Proponents claim that the chemical-testing legislation will save companies money in the long run. Dr. Michael Warhurst, who works on the issue for the World Wildlife Fund, argues that the tests will keep especially dangerous chemicals off the market and thus preempt many large lawsuits. He points out that product liability lawsuits cost U.S. industry about $180 billion a year, or 1.9 percent of the gross domestic product.
EU regulators don't try to finesse the costs of the legislation. They estimate that industry will have to shell out 3.6 billion euros (about half of what the chemical industry predicts) for testing. In addition, according to EU estimates, the legislation's indirect costs -- as chemical prices rise due to the testing and higher-priced chemicals replace those withdrawn from the market -- will total between 14 billion and 26 billion euros by the year 2020.
But, by the Europeans' count, this is a small price to pay for the benefits gained. The European Commission estimates that the strengthened regulation of chemicals will result in a drop of 2,200 to 4,300 cancer cases per year, with a savings over 30 years of 18 billion to 54 billion euros in occupational health costs alone.
American business, by and large, has been slow to adapt to this European mind-set. But the Bush administration has been even slower. It weighed in early on the chemicals legislation and is now dropping hints about starting a trade war over it.
Last year, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Rockwell Schnabel, complained in a Wall Street Journal Europe op-ed that European regulators did not take enough business input into their decisions and that they were concentrating too much on environment and health at the expense of growth and trade. Schnabel is a former member of Dan Quayle's Council on Competitiveness, which was established in the first Bush administration with the mandate of quashing new regulations that it determined were unduly costly to industry. (The current Bush administration has an agency in place with a similar mandate.)
The U.S. government also responded to the EU white paper on the chemicals policy with what it calls a "nonpaper," an unsigned letter distributed to European Commission officials that complained about the European policy. The nonpaper called the EU plan a "costly, burdensome, and complex regulatory system" that could distort global markets, eliminate jobs and reduce consumer choice. Both the U.S. government and American corporations also argue against the regulations on the grounds that they are not "based on science." Never mind that safety testing is a patently scientific endeavor.
Since then, senior U.S. Department of Commerce officials have lobbied EU member states, and officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have traveled to Brussels to promote U.S.-style regulation of chemicals, which involves a testing program covering only 2,200 compounds and is, of course, voluntary.
In May, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Market Access and Compliance William Lash told The New York Times, "This is a big game; it will dwarf the [genetically modified food] dispute."
The Bush administration, however, has a lot to overcome. Its standing on environmental matters is notoriously low in Europe. President Bush's decisions to pull out of the Kyoto global-warming treaty and skip the Johannesburg development conference were minor stories in the U.S. media but major controversies in Europe. Indeed, they "had an enormous impact on the perception of U.S. companies from an environmental-policy perspective," says Julian Lageard, the lobbyist for Intel who heads the American Chamber of Commerce's committee on environmental affairs. "All of your activities are in the spotlight."
The distrust between the European Union and American business on this issue is, of course, compounded by their differences on the subject of government itself. Lobbyists in Washington attack every piece of legislation their employer doesn't like by calling it "big government," and they are guaranteed to find a receptive audience in nearly all Republicans and many Democrats. It's a different story in Europe. After all, the European Union is, by definition, big government.
The American penchant for "self-regulation" rather than government oversight also has little credibility with officials in Brussels, who tend to take the view that companies, like children, will misbehave if left to themselves.
"Our reaction when faced with regulation is, 'Hold on a moment! What's the problem? Is legislation necessary?'" says Baudouin Kelecom, a spokesman for ExxonMobil in Brussels. And while his company has a reputation for being the most recalcitrant of U.S. concerns operating in Europe, at home most American companies express a similar attitude. Industry, they insist, is better at monitoring itself than government is at overseeing it. This has been the dominant strain in federal regulation since the days of Ronald Reagan.
European companies are usually far more willing to accept regulation. The social democratic history of Europe in the last 50 years has left a legacy of entwinement between government and industry such that even fully private European companies are used to government intervention and strong labor unions.
"The American context is so neoliberal that it is very hard for any American, whether they are a consumer organization or a corporation, to understand what drives Europeans," says David Earnshaw, a former parliamentary aide who is now a lobbyist in the Brussels office of public-relations giant Burson-Marsteller.
U.S. companies have long tried to sell Europeans on the American laissez-faire model. Before the Enron, Wall Street and corporate-accounting scandals broke, U.S. businesses were putting strong pressure on European and other international accounting regulators to adopt U.S. accounting principles. The senior finance officials of both Pfizer and General Electric, for example, pushed the International Accounting Standards Board to forgo a rule requiring that stock options awarded to executives be counted among a company's expenses. That effort has now been put on hold.
Lobbying, considered in Washington a respectable method for business interests to weigh in with the government, is looked upon with suspicion by most member states of the European Union. To be sure, there's no lack of political schmoozing among European politicians and business representatives. Nor are European politicians strangers to the backroom deal or the envelope under the table. In 2000, much of the European Commission was fired in a cloud of scandal while corruption was revealed at the highest levels in France and Germany.
But the current conflict between corporate America and the European Union cannot be fully understood unless one considers that the bribery and corruption that have long plagued European politics are dwarfed by what is legal and accepted in Washington. In the United States, lobbyists can kill legislation at almost any point in its progress. They can keep it from ever being heard in committee and they can cut its funding after it's been passed. Whether the issue is tobacco, health insurance or nuclear power, corporate lobbying tactics in Washington are standard: Give tens of thousands of dollars to candidates, hire former officials who used to regulate the industry, and utilize mass mailings and front groups to produce an appearance of grass-roots support, known in the business as "Astroturf."
These tactics are just beginning to surface in Brussels. The big pharmaceutical companies, GlaxoSmithKline and Merck, mobilized and funded patients groups representing the mentally ill, which helped the firms win approval for the patenting of genes. General Electric, wounded in 2001 when the European Union quashed its merger with Honeywell, has now moved its European headquarters to Brussels, and has chosen an Italian -- the same nationality as EU Commissioner for Competition Policy Mario Monti -- to head it. And Microsoft recently engaged in a high-profile revolving-door hire, bringing on Detlef Eckert, the former head of policy planning for the European directorate of information technology. In that post, Eckert reportedly had access to confidential documents in Brussels' antitrust case against the software giant. (Microsoft has assured EU officials that he will not be working on antitrust issues.) One U.S. investment bank executive recently bragged that his company had well-connected former high-level officials on retainer in almost every European country. "We can get access to anybody we want to," he said.
The potential for manipulation clearly exists. Like Washington, Brussels operates in a bubble little understood or observed by the general public, where overworked and understaffed politicians and bureaucrats must make complicated decisions on a host of policy issues. This is fertile ground for lobbyists -- as providers of substantive information and political intelligence -- to grow in influence. And just as in Washington, corporate lobbyists in Brussels far outnumber public-interest representatives.
Moreover, the European Union is made up of a variety of institutions, all still evolving and all vying with one another for power. The most important decision-making bodies are the Council of Ministers, made up of heads of state and senior cabinet officials, which proposes and approves legislation; the European Commission, the giant multinational bureaucracy, which proposes legislation and promulgates regulations; and the 626-member European Parliament, which used to be rather weak but lately has been strengthening its oversight and legislative role, particularly on environmental and consumer issues. Within these bodies, government representatives and parliamentary deputies have allegiances to a plethora of political parties, among them socialists, greens, Thatcherite conservatives and hard-line nationalists.
Yet despite this, Brussels does not seem to be in the grip of the partisan wars that so paralyze Washington and are so easily exploited by corporate lobbyists. Instead, compromise is the name of the game. At a recent hearing of the European Parliament's financial-services committee, some 50 committee members from 15 countries were crowded into a room wearing headphones while interpreters in glass booths overhead gave simultaneous translations in dozens of languages. Waiters in red vests and bow ties moved silently around the room pouring tea. In the back, scores of lobbyists jotted down notes. The only interruptions in the earnest proceedings came when the German chairwoman begged a Spanish member to slow down so that her interpreter could keep up.
The elitism for which the EU bureaucracy is so often criticized seems to provide further insulation from influence by big business. Bureaucrats in the European Commission, whose lawmaking powers are similar to those of the U.S. Congress do not run for election and thus can't be pressured in the same way as members of the U.S. Congress. Lobbyists in Brussels attach even more significance to the fact that they're quite limited in the campaign donations they can dispense in Europe. This is dictated by custom and by law. The cost of European campaigning, in any case, is low. David Robert Bowe, a three-term member of the European Parliament from Britain, says that his last campaign cost only a little more than $40,000.
Ironically, it's the growing democratization of the European Union, the increasing power of its elected parliament that may provide the greatest opportunities for corporate lobbyists to exert American-style influence. As Hill & Knowlton European Chairwoman Elaine Cruikshanks recently noted, the parliament "is open and accessible and has members with relatively few staff to support them." Already, Cruikshanks says, members are eager for lobbyists to help fill the informational void.
The Power of Bird-watchers
But to date, U.S. companies have been regularly stymied by European political realities. And they have been repeatedly caught off guard by the power of environmental, health and consumer movements in Europe.
Unlike in Washington, where Greenpeace and Ralph Nader are seen as the political fringe, in Europe politicians cross such public-interest groups at their own peril. The green movement had its roots in Germany, the industrial giant; France fights heated trade wars on behalf of family farmers and fresh pastries; and England, home of Thatcherism and privatization, is also a nation of militant bird-watchers and garden-club members.
"Often American corporations don't understand the pace at which this stuff moves over here. It comes as a terribly rude shock to them," says Gavin Grant, deputy chairman at the London office of Burson-Marsteller, where the lobby is lined with large TV screens flashing graphics interspersed with the words "The Power of Perception."
One of the forces behind the chemicals legislation was Greenpeace, which campaigned for it for years. The organization is now campaigning in Germany and the United Kingdom to support the testing law and overcome the opposition of chemical makers in those countries, says Stephen Tindale, who heads Greenpeace in Britain.
U.S. officials and corporate executives who maintain that the European Union is issuing regulations to protect its own industries are missing the point. By making laws that force companies to put the social contract above their earnings, Europe is taking on not just particular American businesses but the very way that America does business.
As Michelle O'Neill, an Irishwoman who lobbies on environmental issues for Hewlett-Packard, puts it, "Just because they are big, powerful companies in the U.S. doesn't mean they are going to be treated better in Brussels."