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30th Oct 2020

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Lobbyist register to be tightened after Monsanto case

  • Monsanto spent €14.5m lobbying the EU over its controversial weedkiller (Photo: Felix Kindermann / Campact)

Updated EU transparency rules set for the end of this year means lobbyists will have to declare much more accurate - and thus likely larger - figures on what they spend to influence EU decision-making.

The figures currently cited in the EU's joint transparency register are widely suspected of being under-reported.

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The register is shared between the European Commission and the European Parliament, and lists thousands of companies, consultancies and NGOs that work to influence EU legislation.

The authority that oversees the register recently announced in a letter it would impose clearer rules to make sure lobbyists do not skirt their reporting obligations.

The issue came to a head when pro-transparency group Corporate Europe Observatory complained that the US giant Monsanto had failed to truly declare how much it spent in a campaign to steer the debate around its controversial weedkiller glyphosate.

"It was just one piece of evidence of something that is widely known - that these figures are very arbitrary and in most cases underestimates of what the real lobbying spending is," said Nina Holland, a researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory.

The Monsanto shuffle

Monsanto has since been bought out by Germany's Bayer but at the time was separating its lobby spending amounts into those that took place in Brussels and those that took place at the EU member state level.

The separation was artificial because the particular issue dealt directly with EU-wide affairs. It also violated the register's current transparency rules, which say all activities must be declared "irrespective of where they are undertaken."

But Monsanto still only declared €1.5m in the EU's joint transparency register, when it fact it had spent over €14m.

The millions went to a contract awarded to public relations agency FleishmanHillard, for a campaign that ran from October 2016 to the very end of 2017.

For its part, FleishmanHillard declared Monsanto paid it €800,000 in 2016 and then €600,000 in 2017. When pressed by this website, it did not dispute the €14.5m figure.

French media revelations disclosed Monsanto had also hired FleishmanHillard to compile a list of 200 people, including journalists, that were hostile to the US firm. The new owners at Bayer then hired a law firm to look into these dealings, which revealed Monsanto had in fact spent millions.

"This was a clear piece of evidence and I thought I would submit a complaint to see what the register's secretariat would do," said Holland.

She sent the complaint to the Joint Transparency Register Secretariat (JTRS), which has the power to remove lobbyists from the list. Those not registered, for instance, cannot hold meetings with European commissioners and their immediate subordinates.

In a reply letter sent to Holland on 21 April, the JTRS said lobbying money spent in Brussels or in member states must be declared when the issue itself is EU-related. It pointed out that the transparency register already requires full declarations.

But it also noted that the existing rules were not entirely clear, and has since decided to specifically point out that activities carried out at EU member state level must be included.

"In doing so, whilst recognising the complexity of the matter, we hope to ensure a consistent interpretation of the scope of activities covered in future," it said.

The new clearer rules are only likely to be updated towards the end of the year.

Asked if they intend to update their figures following the announcement, FleishmanHillard said they take all matters of transparency seriously.

"We think carefully and deliberately about making our disclosures accurately and in accordance with the registry's rules," it said, in an emailed statement.

Tug of War

Meanwhile, the tug of war on who needs to register and who gets access to the EU institutions remains tense.

The European Commission in 2016 put forward a plan to make the register mandatory for itself, the European Parliament, and the Council, representing member states.

Commissioner Frans Timmermans, under the Juncker Commission, had insisted on making it compulsory.

But the European Parliament revolted, claiming MEPs should be able to meet anyone - even if not registered as a lobbyist. MEPs instead introduced rules requiring committee chairs and people who lead legislative files to publish their meetings with lobbyists.

Vera Jourova, the commission's vice-president for values and transparency, has since taken over the file from Timmermans.

All three institutions are now set to start negotiations to try to reach some sort of new compromise.

The parliament recently put together its lead negotiators on the file, Polish centre-right MEP Danuta Hubner and German centre-left MEP Katrina Barley.

Both are reporting back to representatives of all the political groups.

Among them is German Green MEP Daniel Freund, who is also pressing to get MEPs to link their lobbyist meetings to a legislative footprint.

He said a deal on the joint-register could be wrapped up by the end of the year or the start of 2021.

"Having been working on this transparency issue for years now, the progress is slow, that is true and I wanted to go faster, but at least there is always progress in the right direction," he said, in a telephone call.

Analysis

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Lobby register transparency talks collapse

Efforts to set up a better transparency register for lobbyists have collapsed after two years of talks. The impasse revolves around the European Commission's insistence that the register also become mandatory for the European Parliament and Council.

EU commission on defensive over 'revolving doors'

The European Commission rubber-stamped over 99 percent requests by officials to take on jobs in the private sector, posing ethical questions in light of known examples where conflicts of interests appear to be clear cut.

Investigation

Violating promises and law, von der Leyen tests patience

Under EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, transparency was supposed to be a "guiding principle". Instead, the European Commission is asking Kafkaesque questions in response to an access to documents request, and failing to meet its legal deadline.

Future of Europe: EU Council urged to propose a chair

Since the German presidency promised the Conference on the Future of Europe would start under their leadership, the European Commission and MEPs hope the event will be launched soon. But there is one issue: who will chair the conference?

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