28th Nov 2023


Why EU needs a US ‘foreign agents registration act’ post-Qatargate

  • A European 'Foreign Agents Registration Act' would systematically expose the countless lobbyists and influence-peddlers on foreign powers' payrolls, giving Europeans an idea of which countries are lobbying most aggressively (Photo: European Parliament)
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The recent bribery scandal shaking the European Union has drawn attention to democracy's soft underbelly. Far from simply being a reflection of individual greed and venality (the accused deny all allegations), it underscores that the basic infrastructure of liberal democracy in the EU is incomplete. In order to fix it, the EU should look to a surprising model — the United States.

In the US, anyone acting on behalf of a foreign government is obliged not simply to disclose that fact but also its specifics — fees, services provided, officials approached for that purpose, employees working on the account, and so on.

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As a result, we know that Qatar has been paying Mercury Public Affairs, LLC, $30,000 per month [€28,000] for "research, advice, and engagement with relevant nongovernmental policy and academic institutions," or that it is paying the same monthly amount to BGR Government Affairs, LLC, to "facilitate communications with relevant officials and decision makers and the media in the US, specifically in the state of Texas." Another company is on a similar retainer with regards to Florida.

Thanks to the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, we also know that former US attorney general John Ashcroft received $2.5 million for a 90-day retainer to highlight Qatar's efforts to combat terrorism and comply with international financial regulations, and that Ashcroft committed himself to enlisting "former key government leaders, including former officials who held very senior positions within the intelligence community, the Federal Bureau of Investigation," and other agencies to support the effort.

Americans also know that tiny Qatar ranks fourth in terms of lobbying spend in Washington in 2016-22, after China, Japan, and South Korea. (Russia ranks sixth.)

There is no suggestion that any of this is illegal, although some of it might be unethical — but thanks to FARA, Americans can form an idea of what Qatar is doing to influence policy-making.

Multiply this by the number of countries actively lobbying in Washington and state capitals, and add to that the numerous law firms they retain, and a rough map of these governments' main concerns in relations with the US emerges. We Europeans, meanwhile, are completely in the dark as to which former European Commissioners are lobbying their colleagues on behalf of foreign clients, or which lobbyists are approaching members of the European Parliament for the same purpose.

Had an EU-level FARA — a EuroFARA — existed at the time of the most recent cash-for-influence scandal, it would not have prevented corrupt MEPs from accepting cash from foreign governments, or former commissioners from lobbying on behalf of dodgy NGOs.

People willing to break the law would have broken this law, too.

But it would have given lawmakers, officials, diplomats, campaigners, and ordinary citizens an insight into the legal lobbying efforts of the likes of Qatar or Morocco, and hence allowed them to make informed conjectures about what else might be going on below the waterline.

At the same time, EuroFARA would systematically expose the countless lobbyists and influence-peddlers on foreign powers' payrolls, giving Europeans an idea of which countries are lobbying most aggressively and toward what goals. It would also show them which officials they're meeting to push their agenda, and the legislative footprint this leaves behind.

In order for the proposed regulation to be meaningful, it must have robust enforcement mechanisms — a weak spot of the US FARA. It is critical that it include law firms (as does FARA), currently excluded from the requirement to sign up in the existing Transparency Register yet frequently lobbying on behalf of foreign clients, including governments. And it should apply to lobby meetings with member states' diplomats as well — currently a complete black box in Brussels.

The need to act at EU level is evident.

Various EU member states lack any legislation on lobbying, and have neither a lobbyist register nor a code of conduct for lobbyists — the weakest instruments to regulate lobbying. Others have voluntary lobbying registers. Most of these regulatory regimes are marked by weak enforcement.

But more importantly, the EU needs specific rules to apply to officials in its institutions, to MEPs, members of the college of European Commissioners, and national diplomats engaged in lawmaking in the council, due to the specificities of the EU's set-up.

Until now, the EU's efforts to regulate lobbying — any lobbying — have remained anaemic, and what little regulation exists is marred by lack of enforcement.

When Dimitris Avramopoulos asked the commission for permission to accept a generously compensated "honorary" board membership with a dubious NGO soon after his term as commissioner ended, he received permission even though the NGO in question had not even bothered to sign up to the Transparency Register.

There was no follow-up by the Commission services to check later whether registration had taken place, nor did it occur to anyone to ask why an honorary board membership should be compensated with €5,000 per month.

It is ironic that the European Commission, in its rule of law report on Belgium adopted last July, called on Belgium to complete an ongoing reform of lobbying rules for ministers and parliamentarians and to strengthen its integrity framework.

The commission, together with the other institutions, should take immediate steps to strengthen its own integrity framework. A critical element must be the creation of a database of foreign lobbyists — a EuroFARA.

FARA was adopted in 1938 amid growing concerns about Nazi propaganda and attempts to influence the policy process.

We are again living through a moment where liberal democracies are becoming aware of the need to actively defend their way of life against foreign adversaries.

At a time when the EU is spending a great deal on identifying and trying to counter disinformation, and is more broadly concerned about authoritarian influence, it seems a glaring oversight to deny itself — and its citizenry — the critical information a EuroFARA would provide.

Author bio

Toby Vogel is a Brussels-based co-founder and senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council, a think tank in Berlin.


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

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