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23rd Feb 2020

EU watchdog calls for fines on shady lobbyists

  • Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly wants "something that isn't just a tap on the wrist" (Photo: European Parliament)

The EU's top administrative watchdog wants lobbyists in Brussels to face big fines for not following the rules in the EU joint transparency register.

The idea is part of her larger wishlist to track the lobbyist footprint on EU-level law-making and follows her announcement to launch a separate conflict of interest probe on how the EU commission appoints special advisers.

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  • The Council, representing member states, is set to be included in the transparency register (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Emily O'Reilly, the EU ombudsman, on Monday (30 May), told reporters that getting lobbyists to follow rules needed to be backed up with strong sanctions.

"Something that makes a difference, something that isn't just a tap on the wrist," she said.

She said penalties would have to be varied to suit the organisation's size. A small NGO would be fined much less for a violation than a big corporate firm, she said.

The joint-transparency register is shared between the European Commission and the European Parliament. It lists some 9,200 entries, from NGOs like Amnesty International to tobacco multinational Philip Morris International.

But pro-transparency groups like Brussels-based Corporate Europe Observatory have long complained that the register is incomplete and riddled with errors despite last year's revamp.

Advisers and Stoiber

O'Reilly set her sights on the Brussels executive following a complaint on how it appointed a German politician as a special adviser to EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

Edmund Stoiber, the former chairman of the Christian Social Union (CSU), was officially appointed to the post in March last year, although his position was announced in December 2014. His declaration of conflict of interest was only issued the following January. It noted, among other things, that he held positions linked to Nurnberger, a large insurance company.

O'Reilly said the insurance omission and his premature appointment "raised legitimate doubts" on how he was vetted.

The revelation triggered her to launch a probe on how the EU commission carries out conflict of interest assessments on the other 40 or so special advisers.

Making the register mandatory

The commission, for its part, is set to announce a new proposal for an inter-institutional agreement to make the register mandatory. They also want the EU Council, representing member states, to be become a part of it.

A 12-week public consultation on the register looking at issues on how it is structured and how the current set up works will be published on Tuesday. Once the responses are analysed, it will issue a proposal before the end of the year.

An EU commission official said any ideas on sanctions and proposals, included in the consultation, would feed into "any changes we might want to make".

In a letter addressed to commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on Friday (27 May), O'Reilly said the register should evolve into a "central transparency hub" that links with other registers.

The letter states such a hub should give the public a detailed picture of "how exactly a particular organisation tried to wield influence".

That includes requiring lawyers to declare their clients. The loophole has allowed some to meet with people inside the EU commission without having to declare it.

The issue is sensitive given the commission's past debacle on a tobacco lobbying scandal that saw John Dalli, an EU commissioner for health, lose his job in 2012.

Dalli was linked to bribery allegations to water down mouth tobacco rules as part of a much bigger EU-wide reform on the tobacco products directive.

Tobacco transparency

Another broader problem, noted O'Reilly, is the EU commission's refusal to proactively publish all meetings with the tobacco industry across all its directorate-generals (DG). Only DG Health is proactive, which publishes meetings and minutes by all its staff.

Last year, O'Reilly asked the entire EU commission to do the same but to no avail.

"To this day I cannot understand why they did not accept that," she said.

On Monday, she threatened to get the EU parliament involved by issuing a so-called "special report", a last ditch effort if no other solution is found.

The EU commission publishes meetings but has limited the disclosures to commissioners, their cabinets, and directorate-generals. Subordinates, like heads of unit and others, are exempt.

“Extending this practice to some 33,000 commission officials is neither practical nor legally required,” an EU commission spokesperson told this website in an email.

A second EU commission official argued that it also fully complies with the international rules set out by the United Nation WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

"Our position is that our ethical integrity framework and the rules that we have on access to documents, transparency, all ensures the integrity of the policy-making process," said the official.

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