26th Oct 2020

Brussels sticks to soft touch on lobbying

Brussels plans to push ahead with a voluntary register for EU lobbyists in its bid to boost public confidence, despite strong advice that a mandatory register with full financial disclosure is the only way to keep the sector clean.

"I'm still working in this direction," administration commissioner Siim Kallas said at a European Parliament debate this week, after a consultation period on his transparency initiative ended on 31 August. "I still believe the voluntary approach is possible."

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The soft model currently favoured by Brussels would see a public online database of EU interest groups overseen by the European Ombudsman, with lobbyists volunteering to sign up to a code of conduct and facing social stigma if they break the rules. The issue of disclosing clients' fees is still undecided.

Mr Kallas explained that a binding directive on lobbying that covered both PR firms and NGOs would take more than three years to put together, meaning that the anti-graft project would not come to light before the end of his commission career in 2009.

He argued that despite public opinion that EU lobbying is done "in an atmosphere of shadows" the EU has not seen the kind of Abramoff-scale scandal that would merit extreme action, while warning tougher measures could follow down the line.

US lobbyist Jack Abramoff in January this year pleaded guilty to bribing Washington contacts with a $66 million slush fund in an affair that brought down senior White House aides and congressmen, and which continues to resonate in the run-up to the US senate elections in November.

He was caught out by a Washington system of mandatory registration that sees lobbyists - including pro-transparency NGOs - declare who they are, how much their clients pay them and which bits of legislation they are trying to influence.

"If the voluntary registration doesn't produce the right results in terms of public opinion and people say 'look, this is nothing' then we are ready to go with mandatory registration," Mr Kallas said.

US model needed

Pro-transparency NGOs at the European Parliament meeting urged Mr Kallas to take up the US model straight away.

"How are you going to measure if the voluntary system has been a success?" ALTER-EU expert William Dinan asked the commissioner. "My fear is, we'll get a watered-down voluntary system that just takes the heat off the issue for some time."

US pro-transparency campaigner Craig Holman was even tougher on the EU plan. "It isn't just registration, you've got to go to the money. That's where the problem is," he stated. "It's the money trail that led us to Jack Abramoff...I bet he wouldn't have declared it if he hadn't had to."

"Flying people round the world to play golf, luxury meals, hard-to-get sports tickets, promises of future employment, even gambling chips to go gambling in Europe - these are the tools of the trade," Mr Holman explained. "Lawmakers need to know who's spending the money to influence their decisions."

Lobbyists divided

Meanwhile, the PR profession itself is divided over the project. SEAP - a Brussels-based PR trade association with some 200 individual members - thinks voluntary is the way to go, while EPACA - a sister association with 33 corporate members - is happy with a US-type mandatory scheme.

Mr Kallas said there is "no clear timeframe" for launching the register. But MEPs, such as Luxemburgish Green Claude Turmes and Portuguese socialist Paulo Casaca, indicated that public confidence in the EU institutions has not had much cause for improvement since the Santer scandal of 1999.

"The present debate started with the killer phrase in the report on the Santer commission - 'it's very hard to find anybody in the commission who has a sense of responsibility,'" Mr Casaca said. "Since 1999, very little has changed."

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