For the past forty years, economic policy has been dominated by neo-liberal assumptions that have dictated trade integration, liberalization of domestic markets, de-regulation of industry, flexibility of labour markets and generally the withdrawal of the state from economic regulation. – This is not news. What has been less clear is how these policies came to dominate the minds of our politicians, and in particular how this happened in Europe.
Country: Austria 2012, 1h 25min.

A feature documentary about the growing influence of lobbying on the decision-making in the European Institutions. A film that explores the mechanisms and opportunities of the ‘Brussels Business’ as well as its repercussions.

Neo-liberal ideology was victorious early on in the Anglo-Saxon economies of the US and the UK and then exported around the globe via international institutions, bilateral investment agreements and in some cases by the “disaster capitalism” described by Naomi Klein. But in Europe, neo-liberalism was delivered up to decision-makers by well organized lobbies of business interests operating as a trans-national club of industrialists. By describing the evolution of lobbying in and around the institutions of the EU, The Brussels Business does far more than just explain lobbying or describe how neo-liberalism captured Europe.

The film makes a convincing argument that lobbying is central to understanding how and why the EU project became captive to a neo-liberal ideological agenda. In the process, the film gives us a vital lesson in the history of Europe’s arrival at the crisis in which it finds itself today. For those Europeans on the right and the left who despise the EU for its democratic deficit and remoteness, the film will confirm their worst fears. For those progressives who still believe the EU could be a vehicle for social solidarity and economic progress, this film should be mandatory viewing. Why? Because The Brussels Business makes clear that, in the absence of a well-organized grassroots counter-force to the interests of business, a belief in the ability of political and economic institutions of the EU to deliver progress is simply delusional. in The brussels business we meet important examples of the activists and lobbyists who people the political struggles over policy in the EU.

The film traces the rise of lobbying, in particular the role of the European Round Table of industrialists, and of resistance to it. It marks the key historical moments where lobbying has played a role in decision-making and in the (largely failed) attempts to regulate the business of lobbying at the EU. The film tackles difficult terrain very well. The problem with making a film about networks of power is not just that they are hidden (and purposefully so), but also that they are boring: in reality, men (mostly) in suits, sit in seminars, write reports, send letters to each other, make phone calls, have dinners, shake hands, sign contracts and make speeches of dubious quality. This is the stuff of contemporary political and economic power.

The Brussels Business

This is how our collective fates are decided. Sadly, it makes most of us yawn. More to the point, this kind of stuff does not lend itself to making interesting films. In fact, it would be hard to conceive of a less filmic topic than one that combines the two words “business” and “Brussels”. The usual documentary tactics are deployed. Compensation for the lack of guns going off or powerful images that speak directly to the heart or mind, must come in the form of images of places, traffic, people talking, anything that speaks of life and things happening instead of paper, dust, apparently empty offices and things not happening.

it would be hard to conceive of a less filmic topic than one that combines the two words «business» and «Brussels»

The Brussels Business does this in spades and does it well. Freiderich Moser’s cinematography is lush. Never has the font on endless piles of correspondence looked so, well, sexy. Languid helicopter shots abound and, because these communicate movement and place, Brussels actually does start to look like a place of power, rather than the popular perception of it as a bottomless source of stupid rules or a hang-out for the less than competent politicians. The other standard technique necessary to this kind of film is the interview. Here, too, The Brussels Business has done well.

The key players – activists and lobbyists – have clearly been interviewed at length and the editing allows them to say their piece and say it with coherence. Perhaps the only odd bit is the confusion of having activist Olivier Hoedeman also provide narration. It might have worked if this had been extracts from interviews, rather than reading. But his role as first person narrator at the beginning of the film drops away over the course of the film leaving us confused about the film’s perspective. Overall, the film could have been shorter and had the same or greater impact. Do we really need so many long lingering shots – sometimes up to one minute or more – of fonts, Brussels from the air, or political leaders entering meetings? It is sometimes hypnotic cinematography, but after an hour too much of it kills the momentum. This is a hint of the main weakness in what is otherwise a very good and important film, which is that the narrative structure is shaky. It could have been tighter and more coherent. A better hook might have been to place the financial crisis at the start, but the real problem is that the story seems to wander. What should be more central issues – like free trade or Think Tanks – come across as somehow external to the central narrative rather than part of it.

The Brussels Business does a brilliant job of walking us through the history of the role of business lobbying in the descent of the EU since the early 1980s into the neo-liberal ideological trap that has resulted in the financial crisis in which we remain. Its documentation of the actual people and institutions that made this possible, the key historical and legislative turning points, and resistance to this project, are all crucial to an understanding of what the EU is today.