Lobby transparency reform: Here we go again

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The public should know who has been influencing legislation. [European Parliament]

Scandals from Dieselgate to tobacco, glyphosate to high finance, have contributed to widespread public cynicism over the power of lobbyists in the EU. Campaigners are facing the upcoming EU lobby transparency negotiations with a mixture of weary resignation and apprehension, writes Vicky Cann.

Vicky Cann is a campaigner for ALTER-EU, the Alliance for Lobby Transparency and Ethics Regulation.

Weary resignation because the last round of negotiations in 2013-14 led to no major improvements in EU lobby transparency, and only the tiniest of tweaks here and there. Apprehension because the Commission’s proposal upon which the negotiations will be based, lacks sufficiently ambitious content to transform the register, while making some proposals which could be a real set-back for EU lobby transparency.

And hope because, well, we are campaigners and there is always hope, as evidenced by this open letter, coordinated by the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU), which demands tougher lobby transparency rules, signed by more than 100 organisations, including Oxfam, Greenpeace EU, BEUC and EPSU, to name just a few.

As our letter says, lobby transparency is an important tool in the fight for public-interest decision-making at the European level. We want to see a comprehensive lobby transparency register that can tell us accurately who is influencing EU decision-making, on which issues, on whose behalf, and with what budgets. Transparency is self-evidently a good thing, but it is only the first, essential step in a much longer process to open up EU policy-making, tackle excessive corporate influence, and bring the EU institutions closer to citizens.

But right now the Commission and Parliament’s lobby transparency register is a long way from the effective tool that so many of us wish to see. Below is a short list of the lobbyists with the highest declared EU lobby spend in the register and, as you can see, the sums are totally implausible while the organisations would not feature on anyone’s list of the most influential lobbyists in Brussels.

 

It is clear the register needs to change. The EU’s lobby register is voluntary and there is little incentive to ensure that registrations are accurate and reflect an organisation’s true EU lobby footprint. As a result, it is littered with errors, unintentional or deliberate; has miniscule monitoring capacity; next-to-no sanctioning powers; and therefore, cannot be seen as a truly reliable source of data on EU lobbying.

In the absence of a legally binding, compulsory register, it is vital that there are as many incentives as possible to encourage EU lobbyists to sign up – and provide accurate data. And the negotiations look set for an almighty tussle on this issue. The Commission says that, by banning unregistered lobbyists from meeting its top 300 or so personnel (Commissioners, their cabinet members and the directors-general) it has gone as far as it can to incentivise lobbyists to sign-up, conveniently ignoring the 30,000+ other staff who are at liberty to meet unregulated lobbyists. Recent ALTER-EU research on DG Fisma (financial regulation) for example, showed that one in eight lobby meetings were held with unregistered lobbyists.

Meanwhile in a vote this week, MEPs re-confirmed their own voluntary ban on meeting unregistered lobbyists, but it is very unclear how many members actually adhere to this. Some MEPs like to argue that they should not be bound by any rules which would jeopardise their so-called ‘free mandate’ by preventing them from meeting whoever they wish. But campaigners have been working up a sweat to explain that constituents and local civic associations would not need to sign up to the register unless they met a minimum threshold requirement for lobbying activity, so such meetings could easily continue as they do now.

It will be vital that MEPs move swiftly to concretise their voluntary ban on meeting unregistered lobbyists, both as an important signal of their own commitment to lobby transparency, and to force further concessions from the Commission.

Campaigners will be expecting the Parliament to play hardball with the Commission on other matters too, including the executive’s proposal to downgrade the definition of lobbying used in the register, so that it would only cover direct lobbying activities, instead of the current definition which includes both direct and indirect lobbying.

The scope of the definition affects the range of lobby activities and financial spending declared. If the Commission gets its way and limits the definition of lobbying to only direct interactions with decision-makers, campaigners fear that a vast swathe of activity and expenditure will escape disclosure, while some ‘intermediaries’ such as lobby consultancies who only conduct indirect lobbying services on behalf of clients, could disappear entirely.

Traditionally the European Parliament has been a strong supporter of lobby transparency – especially for other institutions. Now the Commission has effectively called its bluff and the Parliament will have to move quickly and astutely to get its own house in order. This can be the only effective response to the Commission’s own weak transparency proposal – and declining faith in the EU institutions.

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