Plans to establish a joint register of lobbyists for the European Parliament and the European Commission were today (11 May) formally given the green light at a plenary session of the EU assembly in Strasbourg, paving the way for the registry to go online in June.
All lobbyists should be made to sign up to the transparency register and their exchanges with MEPs in charge of steering legislation through the Parliament listed in a "legislative footprint" annexed to parliamentary reports, the EU assembly decided.
Today's developments come as the European Parliament is still reeling from the cash-for-amendments scandal that led to the recent resignations of two MEPs.
Describing the new scheme as a transparency rather than a lobby register will make it easier for non-commercial organisations like think-tanks, churches, local authorities and political parties to sign up, the Parliament hopes.
MEPs adopted by a show of hands a report drafted by Italian centre-right MEP Carlo Casini (European People's Party), which had already received unanimous backing from the Parliament's constitutional affairs committee last month.
At present, more than 1,700 organisations are accredited as interest groups in the Parliament and around 3,900 are registered with the Commission.
Policymakers hope that introducing a common register for both institutions will make it easier for lobbyists to sign up and act as a stronger incentive to join.
The names of individuals will not be included, but the register will give details of the number of persons involved in lobbying activities as well as the amount of EU resources signatories have received.
Broad scope of register
The scope of the register "covers all activities […] carried out with the objective of directly or indirectly influencing the formulation or implementation of policy and the decision-making processes of the EU institutions, irrespective of the channel or medium of communication used," reads the text of the joint agreement on establishing a transparency register.
Such activities include outsourcing, media, contracts with professional intermediaries, think-tanks, platforms, forums, campaigns and grassroots initiatives, the document states.
Among the activities covered are contacting MEPs, officials or other staff of the EU institutions, circulating letters, information material or position papers, and organising social events or conferences, "invitations to which have been sent to Members, officials or other staff of the EU institutions".
"All organisations and self-employed individuals - irrespective of their legal status - engaged in activities falling within the scope of the register are expected to register," the document states.
The rules governing financial disclosure will be similar to those used by the Commission for its current lobby register.
Financial disclosure required
Professional consultancies, law firms and self-employed consultants will be required to detail their turnover attributable to the activities falling within the scope of the register in brackets of 50,000 euros if the total is below half a million, 100,000 if the total is between 0.5-1m, or in brackets of 250,000 if the total is above 1m.
In-house lobbyists and trade or professional associations must give an estimate of the cost of activities falling within the scope of the register.
Meanwhile NGOs, think tanks, research and academic institutions, organisations representing churches and religious communities and organisations representing local, regional and municipal authorities must specify their overall budget and provide a breakdown of their main sources of funding.
All registrants must disclose the amount and source of funding received from the EU institutions in the year closest to the date of registration.
No mandatory register
For now, the joint transparency register will be introduced only on a voluntary basis, despite the Parliament yesterday reiterating its call for mandatory registration of all lobbyists in the new common scheme.
"A Green amendment calling for the register to be made mandatory as part of any future review was adopted and we will work to ensure this is implemented as soon as possible," said German Green MEP Gerald Häfner.
Meanwhile, the Parliament pointed out that the agreement "will provide a strong incentive for registration, since it will render it impossible for anyone to procure a badge giving access to Parliament without first registering".
Council urged to join register
The Parliament urged the Council of Ministers to join the common register "as soon as possible" and welcomed the fact that the Council has indicated it will do so.
Echoing the EU assembly's view, European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, who represented the EU executive during the inter-institutional negotiations that produced the agreement, said "the political signal that the three institutions are taking this issue so seriously and that they are going to tackle […] transparency together will be powerful".
The plenary also backed plans to annex a "legislative footprint" to reports drafted by MEPs detailing all the lobbyists with whom rapporteurs in charge of a particular file met in the process of drawing up the document.
The new joint register is expected to detail the number of individuals involved in activities declared in the register and the level of EU resources received by the registrant. It will also define clearly which activities are covered by the register and introduce procedures for handling complaints and sanctions.
The precise details of the above must still be finalised in ongoing inter-institutional negotiations, but yesterday's plenary vote provides a solid basis from which the discussions can proceed.
The Parliament and the Commission hope to get their joint lobby register online by June.
"The transparency register is an important step forward in our fight for clean and accountable decision-making in the European Union. We need advocacy and lobby groups for knowing what impact our legislation might have on different groups of people and companies, but we must make sure that nobody influences decisions through illicit means," said European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek after the vote.
Italian MEP Carlo Casini (European People's Party), the European Parliament's rapporteur on the joint register, said that the vote marked "a first step towards greater transparency".
"Often the issues addressed by MEPs are technical and complex, and they need a balance between competing interests, for instance enterprises in competition with each other. This competition is a good thing. As in modern judicial organisations, the contradictory represents the assurance of justice, so in legislative activity it is beneficial to listen to all the different interests," Casini said.
"The MEP, as the judge, must maintain his independence and seek the common good. It is exactly for this reason that we want to establish a register of transparency, based on an Agreement between the Parliament and the Commission, hoping that the Council will soon join as well," he continued.
"I was surprised at the attention given by public opinion to this Agreement on transparency. I fear that many are giving it more potential than it can actually achieve. Transparency is in fact the future defence for the accuracy of public action in order to fight corruption, but it is not the tool that can strike at the heart of corruption," Casini said.
"The register of transparency has a more modest task, and with today's vote we have only taken a first step towards better transparency. There are also further possibilities that we are considering which can be transformed into rules after more mature reflection," he added.
"The recent scandals about attempted bribery by MEPs were made public after the conclusion of the Agreement between the two European Institutions, and the text of this Report had already been submitted to the AFCO committee. The register will regulate lobbyists' access to Parliament, it is not the instrument to fight corruption. Criminal law that member states must apply already exists for this purpose," Casini explained.
"I am absolutely convinced that the adoption of a common transparency register will represent a major further step forward in enhancing the transparency of the EU decision-making process in direct response to citizens' concerns," European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič told MEPs.
Calling proposals to establish a common register for lobbyists for EU institutions "a small step towards more openness", Danish leftist MEP Søren Søndergaard (GUE/NGL) told MEPs during the debate that tighter, mandatory rules were needed to ensure transparency.
"This report is a small step towards more openness and a mandatory register for all who attempt to influence EU policy, but there is still much work to be done. As recent corruption scandals have shown, Parliament needs to clean up its own act," Søndergaard said.
"It is unacceptable for MEPs to have a paid job on the side, which may call our integrity into question. We must also set out clear rules on what gifts MEPs can receive together with strict consequences if rules are broken. We must establish clear rules of protection for whistle-blowers to ensure the messenger is not punished," he added.
The GUE/NGL group wants registration to be mandatory rather than voluntary.
Despite welcoming the vote, German Green MEP Gerald Häfner said "this lobbyist register is clearly still a work in progress" and that the recent MEP corruption scandal "highlighted the need for tougher rules on lobbying in the EU".
"We regret that the opportunity was again not taken to make the register mandatory. Clearly, such a register will only be an effective and fair tool to ensure greater transparency of lobbying if it is mandatory and therefore applies to all those seeking to lobby the institutions," Häfner said.
"While the joint register will include greater information on the clients of lobbyists and finances, it still falls short of providing the necessary transparency on the financial background of lobbying on the register. Clearly, full financial transparency - detailing the amounts and sources of lobbying funding - is central to the effectiveness of any register. There is also an important link in the chain missing, as the Council regrettably still fails to implement a lobbyist register," he added.
"The Greens will now continue to work to strengthen the register as an important tool to improve the regulation and transparency of lobbying activities, notably in the current EP working group on transparency and ethics that was set up in response to the MEP corruption scandals," he concluded.
"The recent scandals have shown that lobbyists can have a very strong influence in the Parliament. However, we need their professional expertise to help provide quality legislative work," said UK Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Duff (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe).
"This register puts in place a simple system that will increase transparency and improve the consultative process," he added, noting that "transparency will only be truly complete when the Council, the second legislative chamber, also associates itself with this initiative by the Parliament and the Commission".
Duff also welcomed the report as a first step towards introducing a list at the end of legislative reports whereby parliamentary committees indicate with whom they officially met in order to prepare their work.
"This legislative footprint is a sensible measure and also an additional proof of our commitment to improve the Parliament's transparency, including the process of drawing up legislation. It will encourage intelligent and informed lobbying", he explained.
UK Liberal Democrat MEP Diana Wallis, a vice-president of the European Parliament who negotiated the new transparency register with the Commission, added: "This puts the European Parliament ahead of just about every national parliament in terms of its dealings with lobbyists."
"We hope that the member states will join too and then all of the EU institutions will be included. People can then have full trust in the EU lawmaking process," Wallis said.
Welcoming the plenary’s adoption of the inter-institutional agreement, Lyn Trytsman-Gray, president of the Society of European Affairs Professionals (SEAP), said "a common register between the Commission and Parliament is exactly the right direction. We hope this will now give encouragement for Council to get on board".
"As SEAP we believe that stakeholders' contributions to the policy and legislative processes can significantly improve the quality of resulting EU policies and legislation. It is therefore in everyone’s interest to have a solid framework for all stakeholders as well as legislators and decision-makers," Trytsman-Gray added.
SEAP welcomed changes in the new register such as its name – a transparency not an interests register – and the broadening of the scope of who is expected to register.
However, SEAP cautioned that the register should not be a barrier to access and also believes that Parliament should take this opportunity to increase the limit of two access passes per organisation. It also said more detail was needed on the proposed complaints and sanctions procedure.
The new common register is only a small step forward, according to the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU), a campaign group, which argued that further steps are needed to make the new register effective and reliable.
ALTER-EU expressed satisfaction that MEPs had voted in plenary to make the new joint lobby transparency register mandatory in the near future and said that such a step was crucial, as voluntary registration allowed too many lobby firms to avoid scrutiny.
But the NGO was disappointed there was no majority for a proposal for stricter financial reporting.
It urged the Buzek Working Group – launched following the cash-for-amendments scandal in the European Parliament – to develop a clear way forward to ensure that the register’s current failings were remedied by the end of this parliamentary term.
Speaking for ALTER-EU, Paul de Clerck said: "The recent cash-for-amendments scandal highlighted that a softly-softly approach towards EU lobbying transparency does not work. The Buzek Working Group should ensure compulsory registration for all EU lobbyists before the end of this Parliament’s term. By doing that, President Buzek could make a major step in improving transparency of European institutions."
Erik Wesselius, also from ALTER-EU said: "The common lobbying transparency register still has very serious shortcomings. The flaws and loopholes in the register should be urgently repaired."
"All registered lobbying organisations should be obliged to provide more comprehensive and reliable information on their lobbying activities. The information provided by registrants should be checked regularly, at least through random “spot checks” by the administration," Wesselius added.
Andreas Geiger, managing partner at Brussels law firm Alber & Geiger, told EurActiv: "While the register is a step in the right direction towards the Washington model, it currently collides with national laws for lawyers in EU member states."
"For example in Germany, the disclosure requested of client name, work content and respective revenue generated collides with the German Bundesrechtsanwaltsordnung. National non-disclosure obligations currently forbid doing exactly that," Geiger said.
"The exemptions for lawyers mentioned in the EU register do not help here: they only apply to lawyer work in formal proceedings and legal opinions. But the national non-disclosure rules apply to every kind of lawyer activity, including lobbying work," he said, adding: "The German Bar has not taken any position on that yet."
- June 2011: Date by which Commission and Parliament hope to get joint lobby register up and running.