10th Dec 2019

Brussels' voluntary lobbyist register under fire

Lobbyists who try to influence European legislation on behalf of corporations, industry associations, trade unions and NGOs are being encouraged to sign up to a public register of their activities, launched on Monday (23 June) by the European Commission.

But civil society groups have slammed the registry, unveiled after years of consultations and discussions. The scheme, they believe, has "less than no value", as it is voluntary and does not contain the names of lobbyists, which campaigners say will make it impossible to track influence in Brussels.

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"The commission started off over three years ago with worthy ideas for an EU lobby register, but the end product is proof that commercial lobbyists have excessive influence in Brussels," said Jorgo Riss of ALTER-EU, a coalition of NGOs campaigning for lobbying transparency in Europe.

Organisations that sign up to the register have to indicate the policy areas in which they are engaged in lobbying and disclose some financial information . They will also have to list the names of their clients.

However, there is no requirement that lobbyists have to register.

Clean and dirty lobbying

"This means the lobbyists who want to tell you what they're up to will tell you, and those who don't, won't," warned Craig Holman, from US transparency group Public Citizen, speaking to reporters ahead of the launch.

"Indeed, having the choice of registering or not is actually an advantage for lobbyists," said Erik Wesselius of Corporate Europe Observatory. "A company can hire a lobbying firm that is signed up to the register when they are doing 'clean' lobbying that no one would worry about, and hire an unregistered lobbying firm it when engaged in more sensitive, 'dirty' lobbying."

They also worry that the rules for financial disclosure are weak. Organisations are to register how much they are spending lobbying on behalf of a client within bands of €50,000. Lobbyists in the United States however must register every €7000 they spend.

Furthermore, financial disclosure is stricter for public interest lobbying efforts, such as those from environmental groups or human rights advocates than for those who attempt to influence legislation on behalf of corporations.

For-profit lobbying organisations are asked to report approximate figures related to lobbying expenditure, while public interest organisations are asked to provide figures for their organisations' total budgets.

The European Public Affairs Consultancies' Association (EPACA) – the trade association for Brussels lobbyists, however, welcomed the registry, and said in a statement it will encourage its members to sign up.

Peer pressure

Commission vice-president Siim Kallas, responsible for the European Transparency Initiative (ETI), which led to the development of the registry, said: "A voluntary solution suits all expectations in the best way."

"Where before we had nothing," he added. "This is much more than a self-regulating system."

Asked by reporters what would make lobbyists sign up to the system, a commission spokesperson replied that "peer pressure" and the potential damage to their reputation from not doing so would be effective.

"The commission is ready to trust the profession," said the EU executive in a statement. The commission argues that a mandatory register would actually end up with fewer lobbyists signed up, as any obligatory mechanism would require legislation, which in turn would have to include tighter legal definitions. Thus a much narrower definition of who is a lobbyist would apply.

Nonetheless, when commissioner Kallas launched the ETI in 2005, he had said "People [should be] allowed to know who [lobbyists] are, what they do and what they stand for" and he publicly criticised voluntary registries.

Secretary-general accused of watering down Kallas ambitions

Jorgo Riss, of ALTER-EU said he "applauded Mr Kallas' initial ambitious goals" and that the commissioner had been "very sincere" in wanting to achieve them.

Instead, he blamed the commission's top civil servant, secretary-general Catherine Day, for the more modest aims of the final product, and accused her of effectively usurping vice-president Kallas.

"Once the secretary-general got her hands on it, the goals were watered down considerably."

A spokesperson for Ms Day, however, strongly denied ALTER-EU's accusations.

"It's simply not true," commission spokesperson Mark Grey told the EUobserver. "The secretary-general was requested to assist the vice-president with the practical implementation of the database.

"There was never any question of this being taken out of the competence of vice-president Kallas," he added.

One-stop shop

In May, the European Parliament voted to tighten up the rules governing the lobbyists via a mandatory scheme, requiring those seeking to influence officials in the EU's three main institutions to register themselves and provide income details.

The resolution, passed by an overwhelming majority of euro-deputies, suggests that lobbyists must adhere to a code of conduct and face sanctions, such as being barred from an institution, if they flout the rules.

The commission is expected to launch an inter-institutional working group this summer to investigate the development of a 'one-stop shop' establishing a common registry for the main EU institutions – the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.

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