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The European Round Table of Industrialists, a discrete body of 40 heads of European-based multinationals, is the eminence grise behind the economic integration of the 12 member countries of the European Union. With access to the top national and European decision-makers, it is influencing, if not directing, policy for the multinationals' benefit in areas as diverse as transport, education, employment, environment and the Third World.
In the 1980s, there was a dramatic change in the economic and political landscape of Europe with the introduction of the Single Market between the 12 member countries of the European Community and, more recently, the proposed European Union (EU), as outlined in the Maastricht Treaty.(1) Some of the major advocates of this European integration have been a handful of European-based multinational companies who reap the greatest benefits. Behind the scenes, these corporations are orchestrating the present and future shape of Europe.
One of their main channels of influence is a corporate lobby group called the European Round Table of Industrialists, or ERT. Membership is exclusive: approximately 40 men (no women), all Chairs or Chief Executives of large multinationals, mainly, though not exclusively, based in the European Union. Member companies include 11 of the 20 largest European companies -- British Petroleum, Daimler-Benz, Fiat, Siemens, Unilever, Nestle, Philips, Hoechst, Total, Thyssen and ICI -- all of which are listed among the world's top 50 companies. In 1991, the combined sales of the 40 ERT member companies exceeded 500 billion dollars, accounting for approximately 60 per cent of total EU industrial production.(2)
The Origins of the ERT
In 1983, a handful of multinational business leaders created the ERT to express their concern that industry was playing an insufficient role in European policy-making; what was urgently needed was a coalition of like-minded corporate leaders to provide input and vision to Brussels, the home of the European Commission. Umberto Agnelli of Fiat, Wisse Dekker of Philips and Pehr Gyllenhammar of Volvo were the initiators; for the first few months of its existence, the ERT's accounts were run through the spare parts division of Volvo's Paris headquarters.(3) They were encouraged by Europe's Commissioner for Industry and the Internal Market, Viscount Etienne Davignon, and the Commissioner for Finance, Francois Xavier Ortoli. In 1986, Davignon left the Commission and joined the ERT representing the Societe Generale de Belgique (a holding company which includes the largest bank in Belgium), while Ortoli joined it as President of the French oil company, Total. But bonds between the ERT and the Commission were maintained under Jacques Delors's regime. In March 1985, early in his tenure as President of the European Commission, Delors set up an "on the record" meeting with the ERT "to discuss ERT goals,"(4) meetings which have continued at regular intervals.
The ERT has consistently striven for "effective decision-making bodies at a European level, even when implementation is better left in national and regional hands,"(5) and has organized itself into policy groups mirroring the main issues considered by these bodies. These groups, which cover education, competition policy, infrastructure, Central and Eastern Europe, North-South issues, trade and GATT, environment and social policy, produce reports which are eagerly received by both national governments and Brussels; there have been more than 20 of them over the past decade.
When the ERT issues a new report, the Commission jumps to attention. In 1991, ERT members sent an advance copy of its agenda for the 1990s, Reshaping Europe, to Commission President Jacques Delors and then arranged a series of high-level consultations with Delors and European Commissioners to discuss the contents. A press conference in December 1993 to launch the ERT's report on competitiveness in Europe, Beating the Crisis, was held one week before the release of the Commission's White Paper on the same subject; both events were attended by Delors.
On the national level too, ERT member companies arrange regular consultations with leading politicians: Presidents Kohl of Germany and Mitterand of France have had regular dealings with the ERT;(6) Dutch Ministers had several meetings with Floris Maljers of Unilever to discuss the content of Reshaping Europe;(7) and, during its presidency of the European Council, the Italian government met with the ERT in May 1985 to discuss infrastructure policy.(8)
According to ERT Secretary-General Keith Richardson, "access" is the key to the ERT's success:
"Access means being able to 'phone Helmut Kohl and recommend that he read a report . . . Access also means John Major 'phoning . . . to thank the ERT for its viewpoints, or having lunch with Swedish Prime Minister just prior to the Swedish decision to apply for EC membership."(9)
This easy access to EU decision-makers stands in sharp contrast with the influence wielded by other non-governmental groups such as trade unions, small businesses and environmental groups.(10) Eurogroup, a lobby group representing small businesses (a category into which 99 per cent of European firms fall) has to wait weeks for an appointment with a civil servant, and the highly-regarded, Brussels-based European Environmental Bureau has managed to meet only once in two decades with the Commission President. Other lobby groups, when questioned …