Twenty of the fifty largest companies in the EU have not signed up to the voluntary lobby registration scheme introduced by the European Commission in 2008, according to Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE), an NGO.
According to FoEE, this is enough proof that the EU executive's lobby register is "failing in its ambition to provide reliable and transparent information about lobbying activities in the European Union".
The NGO's study – entitled 'Lobbying in Brussels: How much do the top 50 companies in the EU spend?' – asserts that big companies often prefer to use trade organisations to do their lobbying, because such groups offer them more discretion.
Most Europeans rarely associate lobbying by industry associations with a specific company, making it easy for firms "to hide behind public affairs consultancies and professional organisations," the report says.
Indeed, a cursory glance at the website of CompTIA, which represents the global IT industry, gives no details of the association's membership. Asked by EurActiv to comment on this, Hugo Lueders of CompTIA's Brussels office said such details were "trade secrets" that the association's members did not wish to make known.
Moreover, "big multinational companies such as Shell, BP, Arcelor Mittal, EADS and Peugeot declare far lower lobbying budgets than much less visible NGOs" like the Eurogroup for Animals and Friends of the Countryside, FoEE found.
Companies lobbying 'in the dark'
Citizens' failure to realise what is going on allows businesses to "avoid disclosing their own lobbying" and "keep their activities in the dark," the report claims, laying the blame squarely at the feet of the European Commission for designing a voluntary register with weak disclosure requirements.
Natacha Cingotti of FoEE, the report's author,explained that many companies "with a very strong presence" in Brussels, including Vodafone, Deutsche Bank, Nestlé and E.ON, have not signed up to the register, adding that "most company entries are not realistic".
Asked by EurActiv to comment, a spokesman for BusinessEurope, which represents European business, said the association supports the aim of transparency but favours a simple and workable system. He declined to comment on the report.
Many representatives of the companies that have opted not to register hold access badges to the European Parliament, according to FoEE, "clearly revealing that they are involved in lobbying activities" and highlighting the failings of the Commission's scheme.
EU executive refutes boycott allegations
Refuting suggestions that Europe's biggest companies were boycotting the register, Michael Mann, spokesperson for Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, responsible for inter-institutional relations and administration at the EU executive, told EurActiv that "there is certainly no campaign to boycott it".
"Each organisation takes its own decision. We think signing up is a good signal that an organisation is prepared to be transparent," Mann said, pointing out that close to 2,700 bodies had signed up.
FoEE, meanwhile, is calling for the establishment as soon as possible of a joint, mandatory lobby register between the European Commission and the European Parliament.
"If the Commission is serious about securing lobbying transparency, it should make registration mandatory," FoEE's Cingotti insisted.
Talks between the two institutions have been stalled since last June's European elections, but Commission Vice-President Šefčovičhas pledged to restart negotiations.
Outlining the state of play on establishing a common register, the Commission vice-president's spokesperson Mann told EurActiv that "the process is already underway and will be reinvigorated now that [Šefčovič] is in office".
'No plans' to introduce mandatory scheme, Commission says
Asked whether the Commission was planning to move towards a mandatory register, Mann answered "no, there are no such plans". "We think the system is working well on the current basis," he said.
The FoEE report alleges that much of the information contained in the current register is "unrealistic" and relates to the previous year, while a requirement for registrants to update the information they provide just once a year produces "inconsistent and unreliable data".
It cites the oil industry as a case in point for showing "a surprising law of decreasing lobbying: the bigger the company, the less it spends on lobbying".
Of the 50 companies covered by the study, only five reported EU lobbying budgets of between €500,000 and €1m, compared with seven in the USA, while just three reported spending over €1m in Europe (compared with 10 in the US).
But the Commission questioned the value of making such comparisons. "It's not possible to make a direct comparison between Brussels and Washington, where the context and environment of lobbying are completely different," said Mann.
Negotiations on drawing up a common register between the Commission and the Parliament are ongoing.