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24th Mar 2019

One-year-old lobby registry 'as useful as a phonebook without numbers'

  • Transparency campaigners want lobbyists to come out of the shadows (Photo: EUobserver)

A year after the birth of the European Commission's much-trumpeted register of Brussels lobbyists, a review of the process by transparency campaigner has found that less than a quarter of lobbyists in the EU capital have actually signed up.

The commission launched the register last June. As of 25 May this year, 1488 organisations had signed up. The EU executive has repeatedly cheered the 'success' of the registry, but a detailed analysis by the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (Alter-EU) reveals that just 593 actually had offices in the European capital.

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Of the 2,600 lobbying entities that operate in Brussels according to a 2003 European Parliament estimate, this equates to just 22.8 percent.

The review used Brussels as a measure because any serious outfit determined to lobby on European legislation will have offices in the city.

Additionally, some categories of lobbyists - notably law firms and think-tanks - are effectively boycotting the register entirely.

"This means that a large share of the Brussels lobbying is basically invisible," said Olivier Hoederman, of Alter-EU and Corporate Europe Observatory, an Amsterdam-based transparency NGO.

Many of the major lobby firms, corporations and industry lobby groups are still missing from the register, Alter-EU says. Smaller outfits are signing up, but not the major-league players.

"The registry is a net that catches the little fish and lets the big fish go," Jorgo Riss of Alter-EU and Greenpeace, a key organisation within the coalition, told reporters in Brussels on Thursday (4 June).

Inflated sign-up figures

Compounding the situation, what data is provided in the registry is utterly unreliable, the group argues, without the names of any individual lobbyists, untrustworthy financial reporting, and register ‘spam' in which groups that have nothing to do with lobbying are erroneously registering and falsely inflating the sign-up figures.

Without names, there is no way of identifying potential conflicts of interest when, in one example the report mentions, commission officials pass through the "revolving door" to lobbying jobs with companies with an interest in legislation or decisions with which they have just months before been involved.

The identities of the clients of lobbying firms "often remain a mystery", accuses the report, and the register gives no information on which issues are being lobbied on.

"It is as useful as a phonebook without any numbers," said Mr Riss.

The financial reporting requirements are particularly lax, according to the review.

In another example, the report notes that the US lobby registry, which is mandatory and has stricter reporting rules, reveals that British Petroleum spent $8 million on lobbying in Washington in 2008. Meanwhile, if the EU registry is to be believed, the same company spent only between €200,000 and €250,000 and yet BP maintains an office on the expensive Rond-Point Schuman - the roundabout at the foot of the headquarters of both the commission and the Council of Ministers.

"Can this really be done for less than €250,000 a year?" asks the report.

Using the data from the registry, the transparency groups compiled a ranking of the 100 biggest spenders.

"One would think that groups such as Business Europe [the trade association for some of Europe's biggest corporations] or Cefic [the European chemical industry association] would be up there in the top five or top ten at least," said Mr Hoedeman.

"In fact, Business Europe comes in at number 32 and Cefic makes lower than the 100th place," he added.

Instead, representatives of small and medium-sized companies tend to top the ranking.

"Are small businesses really the biggest lobby spenders?" the report demands.

Erotic German lobbying

The report highlighted the huge problem of lobby register ‘spam' or clutter of the document by outfits that engage in little or no lobbying at all. The document highlights as examples the German Erotic Trade Association, who apparently spent a grand total of ten euros on lobbying, and the European Surfrider Association, which spent €0 on lobbying.

"There are many tiny, local NGOs in the register, all with EU lobby budgets of zero or next to nothing," the report reads.

These should be excluded from the registry, argues Alter-EU, "since they artificially inflate the total number of lobby registrants."

The group recommends that the registering be changed from a voluntary process to a mandatory one, similar to the lobby registry in the United States. While the commission does not have the power of legal sanction that the American Congress does, refusing to meet with lobbyists that have not registered would de facto deliver an identical obligation, Alter-EU recommends.

Fine-tuning

The commission is to undertake a review of the lobby registry after a year of operation. Administrative affairs spokeswoman, Valerie Rampi, said the commission would not comment on the Alter-EU report findings until this process is completed.

Sector stakeholders have until 15 June to submit comments on the registry to the commission, after which the EU executive will carry out a review of the registry. This is expected to be completed early to mid July.

"There will be no review before the review," she said.

"As to the size [of those registering], it depends what you consider to be large players. Of the 1500, I see quite a lot of big players."

"The commission has always said that it wishes to work on the basis of a voluntary approach, but if this proves to be unsatisfactory or insufficient, it would be quite prepared to bring in a compulsory system," she continued.

"No doubt after a year their will be a need for some fine-tuning."

One commission official told EUobserver: "I don't accept this Brussels-only categorisation - there are companies from outside Belgium engaged in EU lobbying," while conceding: "although it is true that if you are a serious operator you'd have an office here."

"But the real question is: Are the big hitters on the registry, the Burson-Marstellers, the Hill and Knowltons? Yes they are," he said, referring to two lobbying firms.

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