Financial lobbying: time for a fact-check?

Day two of the 2014 International Journalism Festival in Perugia kicked off with a session called ‘Lobbies and Power; tools for transparency and accountability.’ Given that I, since recently, work in Brussels for an organization where lobbying is part of the daily business – I decided to attend, and learned there is a lot to be gained, for starters, from simply engaging in this dialogue.

Just to be absolutely clear, my presence here in Perugia is purely personal. For years I’ve wanted to come to IJF in Perugia, and I only now had the opportunity, also thanks to my friends at the European Journalism Centre in Maastricht, which I have been supporting for several years now with my expertise as a financial journalist.

Naturally, my interest in this particular topic also is of a professional nature. Since last month, I serve as Head of Communications at the European Banking Federation, which has been lobbying the EU since 1960. The EBF believes in transparent, accountable and honest lobbying. The federation, which represents 32 national banking associations from the EU and EFTA countries – with many thousands of European banks as members, has been registered in the European transparency register since its start.

At the beginning of April, I attended a presentation in Brussels by lobby watchdog FinanceWatch, who presented a study on the financial lobby in Brussels. The study signals a discrepancy between the way that interests of citizens and banks are represented. Banks are too powerful, it concludes. Similar arguments were tabled here in Perugia by representatives of Alter-EU, and also Access Info Europe.

Who is going to check the facts?

I’m not going to comment here on the specifics of the anti-bank lobbying arguments, but it’s clear that the facts that lead to these arguments are in need of independent verification. For example, many of the EU committees that anti-bank lobbyists refer to simply no longer exist. That’s just one.

Which independent journalist is willing to do a such a fact-check? (Please do make sure to let me know once you have done so.)

Generally speaking, media are very happy to present the arguments against bank-lobbying without challenging the source. An independent fact-check of studies such as these could inject some much-needed nuance into the discussion. And isn’t that really important? After all, it is our economy – and our jobs and livelihoods – that we are ultimately talking about.

We’re only moving away very slowly from the financial crisis, and populist bank-bashing still is fashionable. Let’s not forget that elections are coming up. Political groups have an agenda, both left and right. And so do lobbyists, of course.

Banks, through the EBF, have acknowledged their responsibility in the crisis. It also should be recognized that failures in Europe’s financial regulatory and resolution mechanisms played a role. European financial integration moved quickly since the euro was introduced, but regulatory systems were not updated, and remained national by nature, not European. These mechanical problems have now been fixed, thanks to Banking Union, which the European Parliament only approved a few weeks ago. As a result of this, banks are no longer able to call on taxpayer support in the event of a new crisis.

Banking landscape in Europe has changed

The new banking landscape in Europe definitely no longer is the same as it was before the crisis. People who say that this is not the case, including Alter-EU and FinanceWatch, are simply not considering all the facts. For banks, many things have changed in recent years.

Nuance is important in this debate, so at the end of the IJF14 session on lobbying, I stood up and asked for the microphone. What became clear is that there is a real thirst for dialogue. Before such a discussion can be held properly, it is important to take all (verified) facts into view. Seeing the audience applaud this argument does offer a bit of hope for my new colleagues.
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