EU politics: Cleaning up the lobby

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EU POLITICS

Our EU politics expert Gerry Callaghan tracks a plan to make lobbyist activities more credible.

Lobbyists in Brussels have taken the unexpected step of acknowledging the way in which they seek to influence EU decision-making is neither “credible”, nor “robust”.

A joint letter by Transparency International (TI), the Society of European Affairs Professionals (SEAP), the European Public Affairs Consultancies’ Association (EPACA), and the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE), calls on the EU to introduce a mandatory register for those seeking to influence policy.

The letter states: “With signals from within our society suggesting a decreasing trust in the EU institutions and the European project itself at stake, we simply cannot afford to further delay reforms and go on with business as usual.”

The introduction of a mandatory lobbyists’ register would oblige lobbyists to provide details about who they are, what policy they want to influence and how much money they are spending on it. Not all lobbyists have signed up to the current voluntary register, and of those that have many have provided inaccurate or outdated information.

The letter continues, “We see, however, that the misbehaviour of a few can discredit an entire profession. The risk of undue influence and corruption in the political process seriously undermines the functioning of a democracy.

“Interest representation must be regulated by a robust and credible transparency regime. To achieve this, clear and effective standards for all are needed, complying with due process standards.”

Lobbying has long been a controversial area in Brussels. Last year, for example, a Brussels’ watchdog said Commission officials had been hiding meetings with tobacco lobbyists, who, according to Corporate Europe Observatory, were seeking to influence new legislation for their industry.

In February, EU ombudsman Emily O’Reilly said that the Commission had ignored her recommendation to publish online, all details, including the minutes, of meetings with tobacco lobbyists or their representatives. However, from March to June of this year, the Commission took a step forward and held a public consultation on a mandatory system, taking in the views of Brussels’ stakeholders.

Daniel Freund, who covers the EU institutions for TI, said: “The only ones blocking it at this point are the politicians.”

The current European Transparency Register was set up in 2011 after the Commission and Parliament agreed to combine their separate registers. However, the two institutions also oversee the register.

Despite the number of registrants increasing year on year, currently standing at around 9,000, with around 1000 new entries per year, Simone Cuomo, spokesperson at the CCBE, believes the register should be controlled by an independent body and not one that is both the “party and judge”.

He also pointed out that lawyers are often in court against the EU institutions. “You just won a case and the Commission was an opponent and two weeks later you get a nice letter saying that you are not following the rules in the transparency register. There might be a direct link,” he said.

CCBE, he said, also backs imposing sanctions for those who break the rules, but only if the body is independent. According to a TI report, between December 2014 and June 2015, lobbyists held 4,318 meetings with the Commission, 75% of which involved corporate interests. Microsoft spent the most in 2014/15, €4.5m, and had 17 meetings with decision makers.

Freund said: “Lobbyists realize that the self-regulation approach has failed and support a mandatory system that ensures that the same rules and transparency standards apply to everyone.

“In the current system, it is often the most transparent that end up in the spotlight – not those that are keeping all their activities hidden.

“In times of declining trust in the EU institutions it is vital for the EU to remain a leader of transparency, openness and integrity.”

It is hoped a mandatory register would mean lobbyists provide basic information about who they are and what they are trying to influence, as well as adhering to a code of conduct. If lobbyists didn’t play by the rules under this system, they would face consequences, such as being banned from future meetings with the Commission.

The European Commission, for its part, is to propose an inter-institutional agreement on a mandatory register sometime near the end of the year. The proposal is to include bringing the European Council, representing member states, into the joint register also.
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