EU transparency register fails to restrain lobbyists

Juncker's transparency drive has not had the desired effect, according to a new study. [European Commission]

Legal firms have been operating in Brussels for years without registering with the EU’s transparency register, a new study has revealed. However, it seems likely that the European Commission will persevere with voluntary registration. EURACTIV Germany reports.

At the end of 2014, new Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced that he intended to make all meetings with stakeholders public. Juncker and the other 27 Commissioners, as well as their senior staff, also made their schedules available so that EU citizens could see what activity goes on in the “Lobbyist Mecca” that is Brussels.

Juncker’s initiative also tried to bring other associations to heel, only granting appointments in the Berlaymont, the Commission’s HQ, to those listed as lobbyists on the transparency register.

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The register, which has been up and running since 2011, lists organisations and individuals who intend to influence European lawmaking, on a publicly-accessible website. A place on the list normally requires the disclosure of budgets and clients.

However, the shortcomings of the scheme quickly became apparent. A realistic picture of Brussels’ lobby structure suffered, as signing up to the register was only made voluntary. Nevertheless, Juncker’s initiative continues to offer lobbyists incentives, rather than exerting pressure on them. When it comes to stakeholders, he has insisted that his trump card of not granting appointments with Commissioners or high-ranking staff to people not on the list is enough.

Although the plan seems incredibly optimistic at first – anonymity, after all is no small advantage when it comes to lobbying – the register could still prove to be a success. While the number of people and entities that registered between 2011 and 2015 only grew by 10% to 7,748, Junker’s transparency initiative has boosted that to nearly 20%, at 9,263, by the end of May.

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But the rising number of registered lobbyists is mitigated by an estimated number of unregistered ones that has been compiled in a study published by LobbyControl. The voluntary nature of the list means that there is a big backdoor for lobbyists to influence EU lawmakers, without appearing on the public radar.

The NGO analysed nine large law firms that work as lobbyists in Brussels, but who do not appear on the register. Six of the nine are from the United States and appear on its lobbying list, which is mandatory.

The authors of the study highlighted that it is especially easy for law firms to avoid registration. On the one hand, the boundary between being the legal representative of the client and acting as a lobbyist can often be fluid. On the other, firms often argue that the protection of their clients is paramount and that they have an obligation to treat information as confidential.

LobbyControl argued that the issue of confidentiality does not apply when those clients are paying for political influence. Additionally, the lobby register leaves open the possibility for only a part of the client base to be registered, while “normal” clients would remain protected.

Among the cases looked at by the study are well-known firms like K&L Gates and Hogan Lovells, who are amongst the Unites States’ top lobbyists. The latter earned its stripes in Brussels by successfully lobbying on behalf of an undisclosed US semi-conductor company, succeeding in allowing the continued use of a “potentially risky” chemical substance.

LobbyControl’s study warned that despite the existence of the register, there is no true way of knowing how many unregistered firms are influencing policy in Brussels today.

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One of the study’s co-authors, Nina Katzemich, told that she is doubtful that the EU’s system would switch to a mandatory one like that which is implemented by the US. So long as law firms and stakeholders are free to decide themselves whether to register or not, the list will not “provide a true picture of the European decision-making process”.

Transparency campaigners hope at least that the penalties for unregistered lobbyists are tightened up, by, for example, denying them access to expert EU groups. However, the effect this would have on the firms’ ability to exert influence remains doubtful, as they could “easily send their lawyers to lower level EU officials”.

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