Behind the green talk, how the lobbies are taking advantage of the Covid-19 epidemic to revive their industry


Several employers’ federations and interest groups are lobbying French and European leaders to lighten environmental standards or push back new laws.

Environmental issues, “it starts to do well”, launched Nicolas Sarkozy to French farmers in 2010. Ten years later, the word still seems relevant for some manufacturers. Faced with the coronavirus epidemic and the paralysis of several sectors, their leaders succeed one another on television and radio sets to alert, with emphasis, about their situation and call for help. Behind the scenes, some take the opportunity to change environmental standards, past or future.

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“The situation is still very serious, these are figures [sur le recul de la croissance] that our generation does not know “, alert on RTL the president of Medef, Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux. “The sector [automobile] play its survival “, warns in Les Echos (subscribed link) former Minister Luc Chatel, President of the Automobile Platform which represents the French industry. “When air transport struggles for its survival, it would be shocking if the government maintained taxes such as the so-called ‘solidarity tax’ and the ‘eco-contribution'”, warns the president of the Union of French airports, Thomas Juin, to Echoes (subscribed link).

For the airline industry, the sector is even a bulwark against an alleged withdrawal. “In this crisis situation [sanitaire], our world is still very small, it pushes towards isolation, towards nationalism “, says Michael Gill, executive director and director of environmental affairs for IATA, the International Air Transport Association.

Living without the possibility of going, exchanging, doing business in other countries, this is not a future that I envision for our society…Michael Gill, International Air Transport Associationat franceinfo

Many manufacturers sign however in The world forums advocating for a “green stimulus” or for “putting the environment at the heart of economic recovery”. Among the signatories, even the initiators, BNP Paribas, Korian, Danone, LVMH, Vinci, Bayer France … But of all of these companies, very few have implemented the sustainable mobility package (a bonus of 400 euros for employees who come to work by bike), according to MP Matthieu Orphelin, author of a letter denouncing anti-ecological lobbying of certain industrialists. “And BNP Paribas is one of the banks that has the most assets in the polluting sectors. I ask them for more consistency, otherwise it is only greenwashing.”

Because behind the speeches, there are also acts. While leaders are active in the media, others continue to discretely target French and European elected officials in order to obtain flexibility on laws already passed, or the postponement of those to come. Medef did not hesitate to write in April to the Ministry for the Ecological Transition to ask “a moratorium on the preparation of new energy and environmental provisions”, causing an outcry.

“We are not really surprised by this offensive, but what is more surprising is that the state is too attentive”, says Julien Bayou. The national secretary of EELV takes the example of a decree published on April 8 which allows the prefects to derogate from current standards whether in terms of construction, town planning,Agriculture or environment. This power of derogation is justified for “facilitate recovery” economic, according to a press release from the Minister of the Interior, Christophe Castaner, but caused a embarrassment among elected officials, including the majority.

“We would have done well, but I do not have the impression that it is still too applied”, nuance Barbara Pompili, LREM MP and President of the Assembly’s Sustainable Development Committee. “We must not be fooled. Originally, this decree was a gift given to real estate and construction professionals”, denounces Me Louis Cofflard, the lawyer of Friends of the Earth at Reporterre. “We have a real problem”, adds Julien Bayou. The environmental manager is thinking with other associations about legal action to contest the merits of this decree.

In the epidemic context, a sector is trying to revalue itself: plastic. “We see a fairly strong attempt to amalgamate the plastics industry which is trying to rehabilitate its image by not differentiating what serves to protect caregivers from food uses such as packaging, for example”, describes a source close to the government. Representatives of the sector are targeting the law against waste and the circular economy, promulgated in February. Among other things, it provides for a ban on single-use packaging by 2040.

When Brune Poirson, Secretary of State to the Minister for the Ecological Transition, reminded the Senate that the law will come into force on the scheduled dates and that plastic is not a “barrier” material for consumers against the virus, she receives in stride “many letters from industrialists telling her that she made a mistake”, says one in his team. “We have a law that has always been under the fire of lobbies. Those who were against this law for X or Y reason before the Covid are now because of the Covid.”

The plastic offensive continues at European level. The European Plastic Converters (EUPC), a federation of plastics companies in Europe, sends a letter * to the European Commission at the beginning of April * to obtain the postponement of the ban on certain single-use plastics (straws, cotton swabs, touillettes …) for 2021. To support its arguments, it publishes a press release * explaining “how plastics contribute to the fight against Covid-19” by combining “hygiene, health and safety” for sanitary and food products.

Contacted by franceinfo, a French member dissociates. “We were not informed beforehand”, assures Jean Martin, general delegate of the Federation of plastics and composites.

Our goal is not to take advantage of this crisis to go back on laws passed, it is not very moral.Jean Martin, representative of the plastics industry federationat franceinfo

The representative confirms having regular exchanges with the ministries, especially that of the Environment, but as before “any publication of a decree”. According to him, it is above all a question of discussing the calendar, turned upside down with the crisis. “We are in a situation where companies are suffering, this may not be the time to have big discussions on the implementation of the law.”

The plastics industry is not alone in saving time. “I have received messages from fossil fuel companies, hunters, gas and plastics”, enumerates the European deputy Marie Toussaint (EELV), who specifies however not to be the most sought after as elected environmentalist. “The European automobile federation explains to us by email how well it behaved during the epidemic and that it remains at our disposal to send us proposals for the revival of the sector.”

Faced with the impossibility of meeting physically, interest groups adapt. “Usually, they can walk in the corridors and have access to the deputies directly. There, they are very annoyed because all these informal interactions no longer exist”, continues Marie Toussaint. To replace them, some opt for “webinars” (online seminars). “There’s nothing left, no more dinner, no more exposure, no more coffee”, adds the assistant to a French deputy from the Renew group (centrist) in the European Parliament. “The Zoom or Telegram applications replaced them, but you must have made contacts beforehand and have the mobile numbers”, he describes.

I have visits to my LinkedIn account and seen the profile of people, it is clear that it is not to look for a assistant to an MEPat franceinfo

An observation shared by Manon Aubry, rebellious MEP. “It activates in all directions, all the occasions are good to loosen the vice or to loosen regulations at a time when it is needed most”. According to the elected official, the Green deal program, the main roadmap for ecological transition in the European Union, is the subject of all attention. “Always with the same argument,” the urgency justifies everything “, the economy and employment come before the environment. The Green deal, already not very ambitious, takes a big hit”, she denounces.

The agro-industry, the automobile, the air, the household appliances, the maritime transport … All sent letters to Brussels to request delays in applying environmental standards, detail Les Jours (article reserved for subscribers). Among these requests: a one-year postponement of the new greenhouse gas emission standards, the limitation of waste and recycling.

Questioned by Franceinfo, the manufacturers want to be reassuring. “We still support the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050”, assures the group of European car manufacturers (ACEA). “It is all a question of balance: it is clear that for the next few weeks the environmental objectives will not have priority, but as soon as the activity will restart, it will return”, says Michael Gill, director of environmental affairs for ATAG (Air Transport Action Group). “For us it is clear, the work on the Green deal will continue”, for its part Vivian Loonela, spokesperson for the program at the European Commission.

A goal shared by some elected officials, who do not hesitate to “trust”, like Pascal Canfin. LREM MEP launched a “European alliance for a green revival”, bringing together 300 personalities, including ministers, MEPs, NGOs, but also banks, insurance companies and multinationals. Among them, L’Oréal, Axa or BNP Paribas, all members of the French Association of Private Enterprises (Afep), including an internal note revealed by the Context site, requests to postpone certain environmental measures. Inconsistency? “Afep showed very conservative behavior which I myself denounced, but inside there are very progressive companies and I make the distinction”, defends himself Pascal Canfin.

I have had many calls from companies that do not recognize themselves in this speech.Pascal Canfin, LREM MEPat franceinfo

Other elected officials support without blinking. When a German farmers’ lobby demands a relaxation of the rules on nitrates pollution, it easily obtains the support of conservative MEPs, notes the NGO Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) *, a specialist in lobbies within the ‘EU. “It is surely not the right time to impose additional rules on farmers”, defends the European Parliament Conservative Group (EPP), which calls for a postponement of these regulations “at least after the summer”.

However, other parliamentarians remind us that lobbies are also useful in legislative work. “We need lobbies, but among them there is food and drink”, Nuances the advisor to an MEP. “We don’t always have sufficient expertise”, Adds LREM MP Barbara Pompili.

In the end, will the epidemic change the way lobbies work? Some are already anticipating it. Since 2011 in Brussels, all meetings must be included in a register (without binding legal value), but the coronavirus has increased opacity, according to MP Marie Toussaint. “There are delays in the publication of the meetings. I asked to have access to all the exchanges, emails, conferences of the commissioners and their cabinet”.

The pandemic is a big danger, it is a breach to rethink what has been achieved in terms of assistant to an MEPat franceinfo

These fears are shared by the NGO Corporate Europe Observatory. “It is much more difficult to trace their action in times of crisis. All communications such as WhatsApp messages or private channels are not accessible and these practices should not continue after the crisis”, deplores Margarida Silva, member of the NGO.

Proposals have been made to counter this risk. Environmentalist Julien Bayou argues for stricter rules regarding back and forth between ministerial offices and the private sector. Others want to prevent texts already written by the private sector from ending up in the Assembly. “Sourcing amendments should become mandatory, suggests MP Mathieu Orphelin. We can’t lobby grandpa like that anymore, we need transparency. “

* Links in English


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