Opinion

The year of transparent lobbying

08.01.09 @ 09:19

  1. By Siim Kallas

Let's start 2009 with some good news. The European Commission's Register for Interest Representatives, launched in June 2008, is progressing very well.

  • There are currently 803 interest representatives in the register (Photo: EUobserver)

European citizens now have direct access to information on the existence, diversity and multitude of represented interests. Six months after the Register was begun, around 800 organisations are registered, with more being added every day.

This is real progress, and in order to fully appreciate it, one should recall the starting point in 2006.

None of 15 "old" EU member states have regulated lobbying, although some are currently discussing whether to do so. In the UK for instance, where a recent inquiry reported a number of high-profile cases of improper lobbying, the House of Commons has proposed to move from relying entirely on self-regulation to mandatory registration enforced by an independent body.

Among the 12 member states that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007, only Hungary, Poland and Lithuania have passed statutory regulation. Overall, lobbying is mostly un-regulated at national level.

At the level of EU institutions, the European Transparency Initiative picked up the debate almost from scratch in 2005. There is and was some self-regulation by certain Brussels-based professional bodies, but membership is fragmented and not fully representative of the lobby community. There were various codes of conduct, but no single authoritative one, and no common approach among the main EU institutions. And the information disclosed was minimalistic.

Beyond self-regulation

Acting preventively before a scandal, the commission chose to offer the profession an opportunity to preserve the current open relations without imposing bureaucratic barriers and heavy reporting requirements.

In line with this approach, joining the register is voluntary to begin with. It is an opportunity for bona fide lobbyists. It offers a bonus for transparency, and puts the onus on lobbyists to manage the reputation of their profession. This differs from the US approach, where the legislator puts a penalty on getting caught.

But the European model goes well beyond self-regulation: Indeed, the commission designed and runs the register; has committed to effective enforcement and sanctions where justified; has adopted an obligatory code of conduct and set the obligatory minimum information required to join.

We have also clearly announced mandatory registration if our gentle persuasion to join us voluntarily is not heard.

These should be seen as solid first steps. An important mental barrier has been broken, and the profession has accepted that registration is coming to Europe.

Law-firms and think tanks behind the curve

It is premature to draw further conclusions half way through the trial period. Still, after only six months, we can already say that the register works.

It is easy to search for information in it and it is easy to register, even if for some ensuring accurate financial disclosure is rather time-consuming.

On the other hand, it shows registration is taken seriously, and that the profession is willing to make the required effort. Some of the largest lobby firms in Brussels have registered, disclosing their list of clients and turnover gained from lobbying the EU institutions.

This is encouraging, and I hope those who are still dragging their feet will carefully consider the implications.

None of the major law firms with combined legal and lobby practices have registered. This is not OK.

As in Washington, law firms "double-dip" in their clients' budgets. If they do not register, this is unfair towards those consultancies that have. Law firms with dual activities should not be allowed to "hide behind the bar".

Also, none of the major think-tanks are in. There are more than 60 think-tanks in Brussels, and none of the major ones have registered. They are important because experience shows that the impartial academic nature associated with the think-tank concept could be misused to promote partisan special interests.

Under greater scrutiny

The commission will continue its efforts to increase coverage. Unregistered lobbyists are likely to be under greater scrutiny, and we have told our staff to document and record any substantial contacts with unregistered lobbyists. Staff is further advised to be transparent with their hierarchy whenever they are in contact with lobbyists, and to ask their contacts to register. Further measures are being prepared.

In parallel, the European Commission and the European Parliament are working together on the possibility of setting up a joint register for all lobbyists involved in influencing the European Union's decision-making processes.

The aim is to give the profession a single register, with no red tape, providing the public with a single entry-point to a comprehensive overview of the role of lobbyists in the EU's decision-making bodies. A joint working group will report on this in February, when I will meet with European Parliament vice-president Diana Wallis, and MEPs Ingo Friedrich and Jo Leinen to discuss the various options.

Whatever the details agreed, a mental breakthrough has been achieved and the future will certainly bring greater transparency to lobbying in Brussels.

Siim Kallas is vice-president of the European Commission and in charge of administrative affairs, audit and anti-fraud

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