Will the parliament end lobbying secrecy?
With the Commission disappointingly choosing for a very limited, voluntary lobbyists' register, the European Parliament now must show the way and develop strong and effective transparency rules. This requires learning the bitter lessons from the last time these important issues were on the Parliament's agenda, more than a decade ago.
The good news is that many MEPs are determined to act introduce effective transparency obligations for the estimated 15,000 - 20,000 lobbyists operating in Brussels. Currently, far too little is known about who they are, whom they represent and how much money is being spent to influence EU decision-making.
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Already last autumn the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs voted in favour of a mandatory register with financial disclosure for all lobbyists as well as for a monitoring mechanism and sanctions for lobbyists filing unsatisfactory and false information.
The Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety also supported a mandatory registration and reporting system for lobbyists and called for stricter rules around intergroups and measures to prevent conflicts of interests of MEPs.
The draft report by rapporteur Alexander Stubb (Finnish conservative MEP), however, is far less ambitious. Contrary to many other MEPs, Stubb has consistently advocated voluntary instead of mandatory rules on lobbying. In his report, he indicates that financial disclosure might be acceptable, as long as it is "not too detailed", mentioning bandwidths of €50,000 - €100,000 as a possibility.
It is hard to imagine any convincing argument for watering down the requirements to such imprecise estimates. This would dramatically reduce the value of financial disclosure and please only those who are against transparency obligations in the first place.
Regrettably, Mr. Stubb is responsible for a problematic myth that has entered the Parliament's discussions: that the US system of mandatory lobbying disclosure and rule-making against conflicts of interests is excessively bureaucratic and burdensome to comply with. In his draft Report, Alexander Stubb writes that "in the US a lobbyist needs to read through almost 600 pages of explanations to get everything right." The reality is that the US Lobbying Disclosure Law fits on no more than 19 pages. A brochure of 25 pages on the requirements of the law was published by the Secretary of the Senate. The House of Representatives has an extensive manual for parliamentarians and lengthy guidebooks for lobbyists are published in the US, but this is something entirely different.
The ‘600 pages of rules' is a myth that should be put to rest as soon as possible. This would allow for an unprejudiced assessment of the US experiences with regulating lobbying, which includes many valuable positive lessons. It would be tragic if this myth makes MEPs shy away from choosing for rules that can effectively secure transparency around lobbying and limit conflicts of interests.
In the months leading up to the plenary vote (expected in May), MEPs should reflect upon the lessons from the last time the Parliament had an in-depth debate about strengthening rules on lobbying, over a decade ago. Political scientist Didier Chabanet has written a sobering exposé of the discussions that took place between 1991 and 1996. In 1992, MEP Marc Galle's report included a compulsory public register of lobbyists, including reporting on budgets. The report was rejected by a majority of MEPs, even before it ever reached the plenary. In 1994, MEP Glyn Ford was given responsibility for drafting proposals on the same issues, but even though his proposals were far more limited than Galle's, the report was rejected in the plenary. Only after further watering down of the report's proposal for improving transparency and ethics, it got the approval.
Lobbying by commercial lobbyists played a major role in this outcome. In the mid-1990s they established several interest groups to prevent regulation. Equipped with their own voluntary codes of conducts, their lobbying efforts were instrumental in the Parliament's failure to introduce meaningful transparency and ethics rules around lobbying.
Similarly, MEPs are now exposed to a lobbying offensive from Brussels-based lobbying consultants, law firms and other vested interests hoping to preserve the status quo, especially the absence of financial disclosure obligations. The lesson from the debacle of the mid-1990's is that political will is needed to defend the public interest, including ensuring a transparent political process and preventing capture of decision-making by specific interests.
When deciding the shape of improved EU rules on lobbying, MEPs should give absolute priority to EU citizens and their democratic right to scrutinise the role of lobbying in EU decision-making. This can be only achieved through a mandatory lobbying register, with regular reporting obligations, including about sources of funding, clients and lobbying budgets. As the only elected EU institution, the Parliament must go beyond the voluntary and limited rules that the Commission has opted for.
The author is an analyst at the Amsterdam-based research and campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO)