Brussels acts to avoid Abramoff-style lobbying scandal
The European Commission hopes its new transparency initiative can prevent an Abramoff-type lobbying fiasco in Europe, but EU institutions face suspicion under the current system.
"The commission is taking steps to avoid a European Abramoff scandal," administration commissioner Siim Kallas stated on Thursday (26 January) at a seminar in Brussels.
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He added that public opinion of EU financial management is "negative, to put it mildly" with anecdotes flying around that "decisions are made under the influence of invisible hands."
US lobbyist Jack Abramoff three weeks ago pleaded guilty to bribing US officials and politicians in what the Washington Post called "the biggest political corruption and bribery scandal in a generation."
"If we have the same scandal, it would be extremely bad just to react," Mr Kallas indicated. "We cannot stop bad things from happening, but we can say, look, if something happens, we have preventive measures, we have reaction mechanisms."
He said most internal commission cases handled by OLAF, the EU anti-fraud watchdog, relate to public procurement and foreign aid while the volume of common agricultural policy (CAP) probes is "quite small."
Mr Kallas also showed concern that MEPs are introducing amendments and voting in line with corporations, stating that some members represented "the interests of particular ports" in the recent defeat of an EU port services bill.
Meanwhile, the head of the commission's professional ethics unit, Donatienne Claeys-Bouuaert, said her staff is merely "human" and it is hard to say if, for example, the "petits cadaeux" given by lobbyists at the end of the year should be declared or not.
"To offer a bottle of wine or ten bottles of wine is not necessarily corruption," the official, who gives mandatory ethics classes to new administrators, said.
Light on new measures
Mr Kallas’ new transparency measures aim to: get all member states to disclose end-recipients of EU farm and cohesion aid; create a common code of conduct for all EU institutions and create an EU-wide register of lobbyists to show "who is doing what on behalf of whom."
The timetable for the project is unclear.
He hinted the lobbyists' register will be purely voluntary, saying "mandatory legislation, heavy bureaucracy is not in our plans so far."
Mr Kallas indicated the measures have met with internal hostility with "people in several circles saying we don't need additional transparency, everything is OK, what's the problem?"
The commissioner added that the UK and Denmark's revelations in 2004 and 2005 that most CAP funds go to big firms and royal families rather than struggling farmers "initiated an electric debate about the rationality of the European subsidy system."
The transparency project is the third major ethics push in Brussels since the Eurostat scandal of 2003 and the Santer commission’s resignation in 1999.
The subject got extra attention after revelations last Spring that commission president Jose Manuel Barroso took a free yacht holiday from a shipping baron friend.
EU Abramoff impossible, lobbyists say
Brussels lobbyist association SEAP claims an Abramoff-type EU scandal is impossible however.
SEAP founder Rogier Chorus explained that unlike Europe, US politicians woo lobbyists to mobilise funds for policies, with a lot more money sloshing around in Washington than in Brussels.
US firms spent €2.4 billion on lobbying in 2004, while the closest thing to an estimate of the Brussels sector is a commission figure that Brussels lobbying firms generate income of €60-90 million a year.
Mr Chorus said that in SEAP's eight year history the association’s voluntary code of conduct has never been broken and that he does not know of any Brussels lobby fraud cases outside SEAP either.
"There is no scandal to talk about, in fact we are talking about things which are not there," he said.
Transparency International Belgium director Francois Vincke remarked that "We all know by now that having a code of conduct is fine, but implementing it is another matter."
Another Brussels lobby association, EACON, also painted a less rosy picture.
EACON partner Soren Haar said Brussels has several lobbying cultures: the British work via individual companies and PR consultancies; the French and Germans rely on trade federations while southern and Mediterranean countries use "informal networks, persons you know, even families."
Mr Haar indicated new member states sometimes display a "lack of lobbying culture" behaving in Brussels along similar lines as under the former communist regimes.