EU fails to scrutinise lobbyists who operate in the dark

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With the European Commission and Parliament leading a joint committee to scrutinise the EU’s lobbyist transparency register, NGOs are keeping a close eye on the developments. The Parliament's credibility is at risk if the register is not made mandatory, argues Paul de Clerck.

Paul de Clerck is coordinator for Friends of the Earth Europe's corporate accountability campaign and a leading member of Alter-EU, an NGO coalition seeking to "end corporate privileges and secrecy around lobbying in the European Union". He spoke to EURACTIV's editor Frédéric Simon.

>> Read: Parliament VP: 'Be careful tightening transparency measures'

Two years after the transparency register took effect, and eight years into the Commission’s European Transparency Initiative (ETI), what is your assessment of the level of openness of EU lobbying?

The initiative started promising: Siim Kallas [Commission vice-president, responsible for audit and anti-fraud until February 2010] seemed to favor a register that was mandatory for lobbying organisations. But this was quickly turned into a voluntary register.

The success of the register is the fact that it stimulated the discussion about the corporate capture of decision making. After eight years, we can see this debates is still going on. On the transparency register: after two years we see there is a decent number of registrants – even though the number doesn’t seem to grow much at this point.

But despite the large number, the register continues to fail in covering those lobby groups who want to stay in the dark; who have something to hide. This is because of the voluntary nature of the register. And it’s exactly this group who requires the most scrutiny. They’re not at all covered and will not be covered.

What’s more: the register continues to be highly unreliable. Time after time, research proves that the register is full of mistakes. There is a massive underreporting from big lobby players who register unrealistic low lobbying budgets.

Is the register’s secretariat working on getting those flaws out of the system?

Well, the secretariat’s complaint mechanisms is not working well. The people involved don’t have the power to investigate whether a declaration is incorrect or correct. Again, this is due to the voluntary nature of the register.

We have filed several complaints in the past, for instance against too low lobby budgets of some of the most active lobby groups in Brussels. To give you an example, BusinessEurope had a budget of less than half a million and was not even in the top-50 of biggest lobby groups. Shell had a similar low budget, which was also much lower than smaller oil companies and lots of NGOs.

In both cases the secretariat [managing the register] rejected our complaint and argued the figures were correct. We put pressure directly on BusinessEurope and Shell and – after a while – they adapted their figures by increasing them by tenfold. In fact, this made clear that the secretariat was not up for the job.

Do you find lobbying organisations and public affairs firms on your side, or opposing all steps towards transparency?

We work together as Alter-EU and FoEE to push for a mandatory register, but we do find the European Public Affairs Consultancies' Association (Epaca) on our side. They are also advocating a mandatory register. This should be a clear signal to Commission and Parliament that making registration mandatory is what the public and even a large part of the lobby groups expects.

>> Read our interview with Epaca's Karl Isaksson: Best facts, not big bucks, win lobbying campaigns

In fact, it’s specifically the Parliament that should listen to this. In the past, the European Parliament has voted for a mandatory register several times. But when they negotiated with the Commission about the joint register, they gave this away again.

Now there is a revision of the register going on, we expect that Rainer Wieland [Parliament vice-president representing the EP in the joint meetings] will stick to earlier decisions; and not give in to the Commission. The credibility of Parliament is at risk if they don’t.

Do self-regulating initiatives, such as the codes of conduct for lobbyists and lobbies, work?

In fact, we filed a complaint with Epaca to test their grievance mechanism. We filed a case against one of their directors, David Earnshaw, who was working for the Parliament’s committee on environment, public health and food safety (Envi) of the European Parliament as an independent advisor on health issues. But he was also working as director of Burson-Marsteller, which had several pharmaceutical companies as its clients.

We argued that Earnshaw violated the [Epaca] code: he was presenting himself as an independent advisor while his company was representing the views of clients with a clear interest in the Envi committee's work.

The complaint was rejected and didn’t go through Epaca’s own procedure. For us, the credibility of the mechanisms was lost and we didn’t use it anymore. Informally, Epaca later admitted that they made a mistake in the way they handled the case.

Epaca's code of conduct states that member organisations shall not “intentionally or otherwise disseminate false or misleading information”. If you have to be honest – also with NGOs own way of operating – isn't the dissemination of misleading information precisely the “bread and butter” of any good lobbyist, including NGOs?

Personally, I can only speak for my own organisation. We don’t intentionally use misleading or false information in our lobby work. If we happen to make a mistake on the way, we’ll admit it and make sure it is corrected.

How does Alter-EU deal with fake NGOs posing as grass-roots organisations?

We have unveiled front organisations [self-declared grass-roots organisations working at the request of international lobby campaigns] before. Amongst others, we unveiled an NGO that claimed it was representing patients, while in reality it was set up by the pharmaceutical industry. Also, the ‘Worst Lobbying Award’ that is co-organised by Friends of the Earth Europe puts fake NGOs in the spotlight.

Shouldn't NGOs sign up to a similar code of conduct, clarifying the ethics of their lobby work?

NGOs who have registered in the transparency register automatically sign up for a code of conduct for lobbyists. On top of that, Alter-EU developed guidelines for NGOs on how to fill in the lobby register.

As a consequence, NGOs who follow our guidelines provide much more information about their lobby activities, their budgets and their lobbyists than is in fact required by the register.

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