Thursday

3rd Dec 2020

MEPs debate tightening up lobbying rules

MEPs on Thursday launched the thorny debate on tightening rules covering the thousands of EU lobbyists in Brussels, with an initial discussion showing deputies in favour of defining the term "lobbyist" as broadly as possible but shying away from the 600-page rulebook that defines and confines lobbyists in the US.

At the moment, the European Parliament has 2,951 permanent lobbyists and some 2000 temporary lobbyists - with access to the EU assembly restricted to eight times per year. The parliament also its own code of conduct for interest groups.

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However, MEPs have been prompted to revisit the guidelines by the increasing instances of 'front companies' in Brussels whereby big businesses set up an innocuous facade company to press their case, as well as by the proliferation of informal "intergroups" within the EU assembly that represent specific interests, but that are not required to make financial declarations and whose membership is somewhat murky.

Even for Cardinals

Centre-right Finnish MEP Alexander Stubb, in charge of drawing up a report on the issue, says that anyone who "comes to my office wanting to influence legislation" should be considered a lobbyist, including NGO representatives, business groups, trade unions and lawyers.

Even Cardinals would not escape the label if coming to press the case for Christianity to be mentioned in the new EU treaty, noted the Finn, who says he hopes he is not being the "blue-eyed Nordic boy" by pushing for Finnish levels of transparency.

MEPs in the constitutional affairs committee generally agreed that the term should be defined as widely as possible.

They also agreed that the European Commission and parliament should set up a common register of all the lobbyists in Brussels, with estimates suggesting there are around 15,000 of them in the city pressing their case at the European institutions.

Some MEPs said the EU Council - representing member states and the most closed of the main EU institutions - should also be pressed to join.

"They are the same lobbyists at all the institutions. We may as well follow them on their travels," said Green French MEP Gerard Onesta.

Footnotes

There was also broad support for a "legislative footprint" under which MEPs in charge of drawing up reports would include all the interest groups they have heard in the footnotes of their report.

Some 30 people contacted Mr Stubb over this lobbying topic - he includes the names in his draft report.

Critics of the idea say that the number will rise massively because lobbyists will want to prove to their bosses that they have done their job by getting their names in a footnote.

Others note that lobbying in the parliament is going to intensify anyway under the new EU treaty - due to come into place next year - as MEPs' powers to co-legislate are significantly extended with the document.

Mandatory or voluntary?

The most disagreement came over whether there should be a mandatory or voluntary register of lobbyists.

Mr Stubb is pushing for the "less complicated" voluntary register for which he was heckled by Green MEPs.

"Only a mandatory register will get rid of [front companies]," said Luxembourg MEP Claude Turmes.

The Finnish MEP is also leaning towards financial disclosure of lobbyists but "not too detailed."

Instead, companies could be required to indicate how much they spend on lobbying in each year from a set of ball-park figures (such as €50,000 - €100,000).

US system is a step too far

Most MEPs agreed that the US system is a step "too far." Members of Congress and lobbyists in Washington have to acquaint themselves with almost 600 pages of rules. One famous one being that if a politician is present at an event or gathering there cannot be a sit down lunch or dinner as this could be misconstrued. Standing up while eating is fine, however.

For his part, Mr Stubb says he is not out to demonise lobbyists, whose activities have come to light recently during the ferocious lobbying on legislation that took place during the development of the chemicals, services and software patent laws.

He points out that it is much easier to get information as a civil servant, but that as an MEP, "you are out of the [information] loop and interest groups are good sources of information."

He is due to formally present his report to the constitutional affairs committee next week, with a committee vote planned for March and a plenary vote by May.

The European Commission is due to deliver proposals on this issue as well later this year, but has come under criticism for also opting for a voluntary lobbyist register.

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