The European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT) was founded in 1983 to represent European business interests and their push for free trade. It was formed by Pehr Gyllenhammar of Volvo as ‘a private circle of 17 European industrialists’. These days it consists of around 45 European industrial leaders. ERT uses the rhetoric of competitiveness to promote a neoliberal agenda of deregulation, privatization and free trade.
Membership is by invitation only and includes Chairs and CEOs of major multinational companies headquartered in Europe. These companies include Bayer, Fiat, BP, Royal Dutch/Shell, Unilever, Hoffmann-La Roche,Total, Volvo, Renault and Siemens. ‘The ERT derives its strength from the commitment and personal involvement of its high level members and from the substantial resources which ERT companies can mobilise.' The combined turnover of ERT companies is over €1000billion and they employ over six million people. ‘Overall, the contribution of ERT Member Companies to EU GDP exceeds that of 21 of the 27 EU Member States.'
The ERT has had privileged access to EU policy-makers and national government leaders and that access has become institutionalized as the ERT has been integrated into EU committees such as the Competitiveness Advisory Group. Its privileged access to ministers and leaders is reinforced by personal contacts and friendships, including those between successive ERT chairs and EC Presidents.
There is also some evidence of a revolving door between the European Commission and the ERT. Two Commissioners who encouraged the formation of the ERT later become ERT members (representing Societe Generale de Belgique and Total).
Doherty and Hoedeman, in New Statesman and Society, wrote: ‘it often seems that the ERT is piping out the music, while the EU follows its policy proposals like a sedated parade of rats… many ERT proposals and ‘visions’ are mysteriously regurgitated in Commission summit documents’. The Corporate Europe Observatory describes ERT’s agenda setting role as ‘resulting in the prioritization by the EU of new policies benefiting corporations’.
ERT was credited with being the driving force behind a single European market by former Commission President, Jacques Delors. A 1985 ERT paper by Wisse Dekker, Europe 1990: An Agenda for Action, was sent to heads of state and government officials throughout Europe. ERT notes: ‘The arguments were convincing and the timing perfect. The Single Market became the most visible proposal of Jacques Delors’ new Commission.’The subsequent EC White paper that the 1986 Single European Act was based on closely followed ERT’s plan for a single market.
The ERT has various working groups including one on the environment, however its aims in each working group are clearly protection of corporate profits. In its Charter for Europe’s Industrial Future, entitled Beating the Crisis, the ERT argued that economic growth should be the goal of European policy and that ‘special interests can no longer hold the global economy to ransom’. It claimed that labor costs needed to be reduced and regulations cut: ‘What is needed is a standstill on new regulations… New priorities, such as the environment, should be dealt with by a cooperative approach, not by additional taxes and regulations’.
The report stated that, whilst business people were ready to consider other objectives such as social welfare and environmental improvement, ‘[w]hat industry cannot accept is that the pursuit of other objectives is used as an excuse for damaging the wealth-creating machine itself, whether by raising its costs or blocking its development’. It called for a balanced approach involving ‘close consultation between government, industry and science, with an end to the adversarial approach and “government by pressure groups”’. The environment could be protected by consulting with industry over objectives and then allowing industry to work out how those objectives could be attained.