Saturday

22nd Feb 2020

Opinion

EU losing again in lobbying game

After an intense battle with lobbyists, the European Commission introduced a voluntary register in 2008. Strike one.

In 2011 this register merged with the European Parliament's register into the joint Transparency Register, still voluntary. Strike two.

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At the moment this register is being reviewed.

After months of uncertainty, administrative affairs commissioner Marios Sefcovic last week sketched out the next steps at the general assembly of the European Public Affairs Consultancies’ Association (EPACA) - one of three groups representing corporate lobbyists active in Brussels.

In his address, he said he did not mean to "prejudge the outcome of [the] review."

But despite this, his speech included some observations which unmistakably point to what - in his mind - would be "appropriate means for transparency."

In his speech, he compared the EU's voluntary register and the US' mandatory counterpart.

He cited a report of the American Bar Association (ABA) which says that the US Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) did not lead to "formal enforcement actions" and that this in turn created non-compliance by lobbyists.

This should be a lesson in favour of robust, enforceable disclosure for the EU.

At the moment, its voluntary register has no enforcement mechanism other then suspending an organisation from the register (and thereby decreasing transparency) if it breaks the rules.

Instead, Sefcovic seems to reason the other way around: if the US does not enforce its rules, there is no point in the EU trying to create binding measures in the first place.

But the experience of transparency watchdogs in Washington gives his thinking the lie.

Before 2007, LDA was a straightforward disclosure law, with no ethics restrictions on the behaviour of lobbyists.

As a result, there was little reason not to register and disclose. The principle of transparency was widely accepted in the profession (in stark contrast to Brussels, where corporate lobbyists and lawyers have consistently argued for self-regulation).

By every measure, the registration totals seemed to be a fairly accurate picture of the actual number of lobbyists on Capitol Hill and the spending figures showed consistent patterns from year to year.

Both of these are signs that the system worked.

In 2007, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 (HLOGA) added for the first time several ethics restrictions on lobbyists.

President Barack Obama's executive order also precluded lobbyists from taking government jobs in departments which they had previously tried to influence.

In other words, Obama blocked the "revolving door," one of the most persistent problems in terms of conflicts of interest in public policy-making.

Afterwards, there has was a decline in lobbyist registrations, suggesting that some lobbyists are keen to evade the registration law not in order to evade transparency, but to evade the restrictions on getting government posts.

Rather than caving in, this calls for additional enforcement actions to ensure reasonable compliance.

In fact, this is what the ABA task force report quoted by Sefcovic actually recommends.

The easiest enforcement solution - one we will propose when the EU review debate takes place later this year - would be to require all covered officials to publish their lobbying contacts online, a practice the White House already uses.

By expanding this contact requirement to Congress and all executive branch agency heads, American citizens will soon be able to monitor who is lobbying and who should therefore register.

This is something Europeans at the moment can only dream of.

Whatever problems that may exist in the enforcement of the US lobby law, the EU is not "at the leading edge," as Sefcovic claims, either on ethics regulation or lobbying disclosure.

To use a baseball analogy, while the US is about to dash from third to fourth base in strengthening the US lobby law, the EU is still at home base, seemingly out of focus and about to get struck out for the third time.

We have never suggested that the European Commission "copy-pastes" US rules.

Instead, we have consistently argued the EU should learn the lessons from other parts of the world.

The success of the Transparency Register review depends on the commission's openness towards making the register mandatory, something the European Parliament called for back in 2011.

Craig Holman is a government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, a Washington-based NGO. Koen Roovers, is co-ordinator of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (Alter-EU), a coalition of some 200 NGOs, trade unions and academics in Europe.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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