Scandal-hit Volkswagen has for years hired a cadre of lobbyists in the EU capital of Brussels who work intensely behind-the-scenes to influence policy and secure European regulation with a lighter touch.
Activists have long warned of the power of lobbying in Brussels, with German automakers the most powerful in the industry, although French, Japanese and US auto manufacturers also push hard.
The auto lobby is second only to the financial industry in the hallways of EU power as reported to the European Union's transparency registry.
That official list is considered a low estimate but in it, Volkswagen hires 43 full-time lobbyists who work to protect its interests.
"It's impossible to estimate how many there are," said Jos Dings, head of the non-governmental group Transport and Environment.
Though lobbying is perfectly legal, the thousands of lobbyists in Brussels often work "under the radar", he said.
The car industry annually spends about "20 million euros ($22.3 million), with half of that from the big German players: Volkswagen, Daimler and Opel," said Pascoe Sabido, of lobby watchdog the Corporate European Observatory.
These lobbyists solicit the European Commission at all levels, from commissioners and their chiefs of staff to the estimated 700 expert groups that guide EU policy at the most detailed level.
- 'Starts early' -
"It all starts very early," said Dings. "The Commission starts a strategy process, say on climate change or air pollution. This is where the lobbying starts, long before there is any regulation."
At first, he said corporate lobbyists fight for the Commission to do nothing.
"But if by sheer luck, the Commission decides to regulate, the next stage comes: it becomes delay and weaken," Dings said.
All new regulation emerges from expert groups: incubators for European laws that once passed will deeply impact the lives of the EU's 500 million citizens.
"The Commission is quite small in terms of staff, about the same as city hall in Paris, so they look for experts outside," said Sabido.
"This becomes a very nice opportunity for lobbyists," he said, adding that VW sits on four or five such groups.
Under EU rules, NGOs and stakeholders also participate in expert groups, but their influence is much weaker.
"We have four people who have to follow the entire automotive file," said Dings.
"We have to be selective, in quite a few we are not represented at all," he said.
- 'Guess who?' -
Bas Eickhout, a Green Party member of the European Parliament, described a process rife with the potential for conflict of interest.
He hoped the VW scandal was "opening eyes".
In later stage technical groups "it's the national experts who sit around the table and also, guess who?, the car industry," he said.
"There is a huge grey zone: are they at the table to provide information or to participate in the decision-making? The technical information and the political decision making are happening at the same time," he said.
Here even diplomats from the EU's 28 member countries can do the bidding of big companies.
In documents leaked to AFP last week, Germany is seen to lobby hard to maintain European pollution tests that are widely considered ineffective.
Even the industry's allies in the European Parliament acknowledge that the influence of auto giants may have reached the limits of acceptability.
"I am aware that the car industry in Europe and in Germany is very important..., but it doesn't mean we have to accept everything they propose," said MEP Karl-Heinz Florenz from the right of centre EPP group that is traditionally close to big industry.
"They do a good job, they convince a lot of members," he said.
However, they also "never lie", he added.
For the car lobby, what they are fighting is competition from Asia, where they feel looser pollution laws bring bigger profits, threatening European jobs.
A new EU pollution test to be implemented next year, "makes Europe the only region in the world to implement such real world testing for cars," the powerful ACEA lobby said after the VW scandal broke.
The European Automobile Manufacturers' Association (ACEA) would "continue to engage with the European Commission and national governments" to "ensure trust" in the auto industry, it added.