22nd Mar 2018

Major lobby firms set to join EU register

Brussels' biggest lobbying companies are likely to join the European Commission's new register by the end of September, but worries remain about client confidentiality and the details of financial disclosure.

A 10 September meeting at EPACA - the Brussels-based trade body representing PR majors such as APCO, Hill & Knowlton and Burson Marsteller - saw members "generally favourable towards the register" EPACA chairman Jose Lalloum told EUobserver.

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  • The chemicals industry lobbied EU institutions heavily in the lead up to the passage of REACH, legislation that strongly affected the sector (Photo: wikipedia)

"I would think that a good number of members will be registering in the next few weeks."

The commission launched the new registry in June - which asks participants to reveal who they work for and how much money each client pays - to help prevent abuses such as the US Jack Abramoff bribery scandal from happening in the EU.

As of early this month just 300 lobby groups had signed up to the voluntary list however, representing a fraction of the 15,000 to 20,000 lobbyists estimated to be working in Brussels. The register's voluntary nature has also been mauled by pro-transparency groups.

Journalists are eagerly awaiting the sign-up of the big PR corporations to the commission project, hoping to find out how much, say, Russian firm Gazprom pays for advocacy in the EU capital, or if the government of Ukraine has hired a consultancy company to help out its diplomats.

But with many PR firms keeping public and non-public client lists, full compliance with the registry could become a problem.

"If the client does not want to register, then the consultancy is in a bit of trouble," EPACA's Mr Lalloum said. "I'm not sure what would happen. But if the contract with the client stated somewhere that they did not want their name to be disclosed to the outside world, then the [company] cannot do so."

Elaine Cruikshanks, the CEO of the Brussels office Hill & Knowlton denied that her firm had any "non-public" clients and said that her firm would not run into the "theoretical" problem.

Hill & Knowlton would register "all our clients that fall under the terms of the commission guidelines and that require a direct representation to the European Commission," she added, declining to give a precise date for the move.

The commission's register contains another grey area wherein the PR majors are asked only to disclose fees relating to their Brussels offices, even if parallel lobbying activity in London, Paris or Berlin benefits a client at EU level.

Mr Lalloum said the 10 September meeting had seen discussion of how such international work fitted in with the registry.

"If you're a consultancy with an international network and you are doing some work on behalf of a client calling, for example, the European Parliament from London, then that obviously should be disclosed. What does not need to be disclosed is anything directed at a member state national government," he said.

Another senior Brussels public relations figure conceded that the commission's system is open to confusion in this area: "Of course when you are lobbying a member state, you have an influence on the council, but this [non-registry of such activity] is just complying with the commission's own guidelines."

Alter-EU - the coalition of NGOs, green groups, academics and trade unions that has campaigned for lobbying transparency - said it was disappointed that EPACA members would use contractual obligations to get around complete disclosure.

"The commission has made it very clear that lobbyists have to disclose their clients and they can hide behind such legal tricks," the group's Olivier Hoedeman said. "Whether from Paris or London or Brussels, if it affects EU legislation, lobbying should be registered."

But he laid most of the blame at the door of the commission, saying its guidelines are too vague.

"The commission should have left clear instructions here as to such distinctions instead of leaving it up to lobbyists to make the call themselves."

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