6th Dec 2022

Brussels told to take tougher line on lobbyists

  • MEPs receive on average 36 contacts per week from lobbyists (Photo: CE)

If the European Commission wants its proposed register for lobbyists in the EU to work, the registration has to be made compulsory rather than voluntary as is currently planned, lobbyists themselves said on Monday (8 October).

The commission in March issued a blueprint for a lobbyists' register that would list those who work to influence EU policy-making in Brussels – but only the ones who choose to sign on a voluntary basis.

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Those who would prefer not to register would however be left out of formal consultation procedures on new EU legislation.

Some organisations – such as the European Public Affairs Consultancy Association (EPACA) or The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) – spoke in favour of replacing this system with a mandatory one in order to increase transparency in the decision-making process.

"We don't oppose a voluntary system, but we don't see how it would work", Jose Lalloum of EPACA said during a workshop on lobbyism in the EU organised on Monday in the European Parliament.

Mr Lalloum said a voluntary approach would mean that some organisations would still prefer to work with non-registered lobbyists which would go against transparency.

Erik Wesselius from the Corporate Europe Observatory, a transparency group, added that having a voluntary register is "a good first step towards transparency, but it is way too small". That is why "it's good that it will be evaluated after one year - then the conclusion will be that it's not enough".

Currently, almost 5,000 lobbyists are registered in the European parliament and an MEP receives on average 36 contacts per week from representatives of interest organisations, according to Finnish Christian Democrat Alexander Stubb who is preparing a report on the matter for the parliament's constitutional affairs committee.

However, the current parliament register does not go further than listing names and firms - without for example any financial details - and "that is not what transparency is", said Mr Wesselius.

What is lobbying?

All in all, some 15,000 to 20,000 people work in Brussels as lobbyists – for trade associations, in-house corporate PR departments, law firms, public service NGOs or specialist PR firms.

However, a common definition of the term "lobbying" has not been agreed upon so far.

Speakers at the conference defined lobbying as actions carried out with the objective of influencing policy-making – a definition that is however judged too broad by some.

"Too many activities can therefore be qualified as lobbying" making this understanding of the term "too loose" compared to that of the US for instance, said Mr Lalloum.

Under the American model, a lobbyist is a person who receives significant pay for lobbying activity; makes more than one lobbying contact in a six-year period and dedicates at least 20% of their time on lobbying activity for a particular client, explained US lobbyist Craig Holman.

Mr Holman also spoke in favour of a mandatory register of lobbyists and a financial disclosure system which would be made available to the large public via Internet.

"A voluntary registering system is not going to work. Those who don't want to register, they are the Jack Abramoffs", he said referring to the case of US lobbyist Jack Abramoff who last year pleaded guilty to bribing US officials and politicians.

The question of money

The commission transparency initiative also proposes a financial disclosure clause asking lobbyists to estimate their annual budgets or turnovers, with a percentage breakdown of which clients or donors pay what.

Lobbyists present at the workshop generally opposed to this aspect of the proposal.

Financial disclosure can be "potentially problematic" and the procedure has to be "workable and practical", said Lyn Trytsman-Gray from SEAP, which represents over 200 lobbyists from different sectors.

Thomas Tindemans from CCBE - an organisation representing European lawyers, stressed the particular case of law firms.

"Public disclosure for clients for lawyers should be refined", he said explaining that lawyers' clients may not want this disclosure and that "most lawyer fees are in principle considered confidential".

The commission proposal is to be implemented next spring and evaluated one year later. Brussels is then going to consider making registration compulsory, if it judges that the voluntary method is not sufficient.

The parliament's constitutional affairs committee is meanwhile to vote on Mr Stubb's report in December before submitting it to a plenary vote in January 2008.

The Finnish MEP has not yet decided whether he will recommend making the register compulsory or not and is "open to lobbying on that question".

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The 15,000 or so lobbyists working in Brussels will from Spring 2008 have to disclose information on clients and fees under new European Commission rules, but the scheme suffers from serious loopholes and lack of ambition, transparency campaigners say.

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