Part 3: “I do not consider myself a lobbyist.”
Let us get back to the trade issues, which are your field of expertise. From Philips’ point of view as a producer of high-end, high-value products in lighting, healthcare and appliances, what is its stance on imports from outside the EU, from East Asia for example?
As a company we are very much in favour of trade liberalization. We think that there is still a lot of untapped potential in this field. If you look at TTIP for example, it is about more jobs and economic growth, market access, cooperation and harmonization in legislative and regulatory affairs. Common standards mean lower costs for us. Another important reason to support TTIP is that it will be standard-setting. TTIP will codify shared values and will be the yardstick for future trade agreements.
As you talk about setting standards, is there not a danger that the comparatively high European standards for consumer and environmental protection are watered down to match the American market?
That is a concern which many people have and which I can understand. What the European Commission has said time and again is that it will not water down on environmental standards, with regards to GMOs for example.
One of the reasons why Philips is such a staunch supporter of TTIP is that at the moment in it is legally possible in many US states to discriminate against foreign companies. This is enabled through laws such as the “Buy America Act” and the “Buy American Act”. We do not mind those states having such legislation, as long as it is now longer applicable to European companies under TTIP. So what we want to achieve through TTIP is a level playing field with regard to procurement on the state level.
But it would still be applicable to your competitors from Asia for example?
Well, right now the US is negotiating a Trans-Pacific Partnership as well, but yes, right now we as Philips focus on the access for European companies. As a matter of fact our largest footprint is in the USA, we have 23,000 employees there, and the US government is our largest customer worldwide. So that is why we stress that we are as much a global company as we are a local one, with deep roots in communities.
As someone who has seen “the lobbyist playing field” from both the Government and the commercial sector now, what is your response to the common criticism that large companies such as Philips have a disproportionate amount of influence in Brussels?
First, of all I do not consider myself lobbyist. This word has a negative connotation to it, related to dodgy backroom deals and obscure demeanour. As I have said we are working on public issues, and on these topics we give Philips’ perspectives and expertise.
Second, let me explain what our work in Brussels is about. We have been deliberating how our Brussels office has the most added value for the company as a whole. We concluded that the main priority should be funding, meaning advising our colleagues on what funds the EU provides, and how they can engage with local and national authorities to tap into those funds. For example, we have a special focus on development funds going towards Africa. Philips is committed to improving lives on the continent via improved access to healthcare as well as energy efficient lighting, both key drivers and outcomes of sustainable development.We do policy influencing, agenda setting and reputation building for Philips as well. These issues are closely connected. I remember from my time working at the European Parliament, that my boss was not very pleased with some of the lobbyists that came to see him. Often they were ill prepared, not genuinely interested in the content, but just wanted to make sure that he would appear as a speaker at a certain conference, for example. What I have been trying to do with Philips is to approach decision makers in Brussels as a constructive reliable partner. Not only the big names, but also the administrative staff who are really doing the hands-on work in drafting legislation. I am in Brussels to proactively engage, as a reliable and constructive partner in designing regulation.
So if we have some ideas about the sustainability or healthcare in the European Union for example, we are choosing very carefully who we need to talk to: in the European Parliament, in the Member States, in the Commission and elsewhere. After that is established we do our homework: we will try to find out what objectives our envisaged interlocutor has and what our interests are, and then we talk. In these talks we often find that there is a great amount of overlap in our agendas.
Healthcare, for example, is not sustainable at the moment. Only three percent of the aggregated EU Healthcare budgets flow into prevention. Yet we know that about 80% of cardio-vascular diseases and 50 % of cancers can be prevented. So there are a lot of low hanging fruits. We need a vision of where European healthcare will be in five, ten, 15 years. That is why we really think hard with the Parliament, with the Member States, the Commission and others about where we are heading. If you approach interlocutors in such a way, you are welcome. Philips has a great reputation and a great brand name, but we have not been visible enough over the last years.
During your time as a diplomat until 2014, did you still encounter those shadier, less professional lobbyists that you learned to dislike in the mid-1990s?
Many people ask me what the differences are between the Brussels of today and the Brussels of 20 years ago. First of all, English has clearly replaced French as the EU’s first language. Furthermore, the number of lobbyists and their degree of professionalization has increased immensely. I make a difference between companies having a representation in Brussels and the professional lobbyists, like Public Affairs Agencies. The presence of the latter has increased dramatically. Like everywhere, the quality differs, and in order to be heard nowadays, you have to bring in insights to the table that really move the process forward. In that sense it is definitely more about the content than the form of influence or the organization behind it.
Is it hard for you to win over other companies as partners to push for environmental and sustainability goals in Brussels?
We have lots of allies in this. Companies that are competitors in the markets are not necessarily competitors in Brussels, because they have similar interests and goals. Companies try to work together on TTIP, for example. This leads to the emergence of a great number of associations: BusinessEurope and the European Roundtable of Industrialists (ERT) are good examples for this. We try to work as much as possible within these associations, because it makes work a lot easier not only for us but also for the decision-makers. A Commissioner can just meet with one representative of an association instead of every single stakeholder. What I do see happening, though, is that several associations have comparable objectives and are almost competing for time to meet with a certain Commissioner. On TTIP, I am very much in favour of these organisations working together and trying to speak with one voice.
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