EU’s voluntary-lobbyist-registration policy belies its calls for transparency

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[Tudor Catalin Gheorghe]

[Tudor Catalin Gheorghe]

Developed countries often lecture states in the developing world about transparency. So it seems the height of hypocrisy that the European Union is not requiring lobbyists to register, writes Giorgi Meladze.

Giorgi Meladze is the director of the Ilia State University Center for Constitutional Studies and the executive director of the Liberty Institute,  a libertarian think-tank in Tbilisi, Georgia. He is also the founder and editor of LobbyingAlert.com, a blog analyzing lobbying issues.

Rather than making registration mandatory, as a top EU leader pledged just weeks ago, it is allowing voluntary registration of those seeking to influence policy.

And – surprise! – many lobbyists are not voluntarily registering.

Why would they? Not registering means they can influence policy in ways the public doesn’t like, without being identified as the string pullers.

After the EU Parliament confirmed Frans Timmermans as the EU’s first vice president in October, Timmermans promised to institute mandatory lobbyist registration.

When he unveiled his lobbying policy in late December, however, those pushing for transparency were surprised to learn that it lacked a registration requirement.

Trying to soften the criticism he knew would surface toward this revelation, Timmermans noted that members of the EU’s executive body – the EU Commission – and members of the EU Parliament had voluntarily agreed not to talk with lobbyists who hadn’t registered.

That disclosure generated both cynicism and snickering.

“You mean to tell us that every EU commissioner and parliamentarian is going to ask everyone they talk with whether they are a registered lobbyist?” the cynics sniped. “Come on!”

The cynics also pointed out that, because the no-talking-to-lobbyists agreement was voluntary, EU officials face no sanctions for violating it.

Unless lobbyist registration becomes mandatory, there will be no way to “ensure that citizens will find correct and relevant information about who is lobbying, on what dossiers (subjects), and how much money is being spent” on lobbying efforts, said Paul de Clerck of Friends of the Earth Europe. His organisation is one of many pushing a lobbying requirement.

One reason that lobbying should be mandatory, proponents say, is the sheer size of the lobbying gaggle in Brussels, the headquarters of the EU. More than 6,600 organisations representing an astounding 30,000 individual lobbyists have registered voluntarily.

But thousands more have failed to, critics of voluntary registration contend. Those hiding in the shadows include most of the high-powered law firms trying to influence EU policy, the critics say.

A registration requirement would not only make it easier to identify those trying to influence EU policy but also to gain a grasp of how they’re trying to influence it.

Without such a requirement, it will also be hard to gauge the influence that foreign governments wage on EU policy, which is increasing with time. Many of the states that have traditionally invested heavily in lobbying, such as Russia and Armenia, are only likely to continue doing so; the former amid the Ukraine crisis and allegations of authoritarianism and the latter amid the EU Delegation in Armenia’s recent statement expressing concern over attacks on civic activists and opposition politicians, as was reported by the local news channel, CivilNet.am. And the list of foreign governments engaging in lobbying goes on.

In addition to lacking a lobbyist-registration requirement, the EU lacks mandatory lobbying-activities disclosure rules. That means lobbyists can disclose – or not disclose – whom they’re lobbying and how much they’re spending on it.

This has led to voluntary lobbying-expenditure disclosures that have raised red flags about the true nature of some lobbyists’ activities.

For example, Microsoft declared that it spent $5,786,000 on lobbying the EU in 2013. In contrast, Facebook said it spent $548,000 – a tenth of what Microsoft did.

Yet Facebook faces a number of regulatory challenges in Europe, including EU efforts to ensure greater privacy for Facebook users. You would think it would be spending a lot more than half a million dollars a year to deal with  them.

The question becomes: Would Facebook’s lobbying-disclosure numbers look more like Microsoft’s if the EU had mandatory lobbyist registration?

That’s a very specific question arising from the EU’s voluntary-registration policy.

A broader one is: Why doesn’t it have the much more transparent mandatory-registration system in the first place? Until it answers that question, maybe it ought to refrain from talking about other countries’ transparency.