Lobbyist representative: Best facts, not big bucks, win lobbying campaigns

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The European Transparency Register, the EU's database for lobbyists, is currently under scrutiny as it set to be reformed by the end of 2013. Above all, the register needs more resources and to get rid of its loopholes, if Brussels wants a fair public affairs level playing field, Karl Isaksson says.

Karl Isaksson is president of the European Public Affairs Consultancies' Association (EPACA) for lobbying organisations. He spoke to EURACTIV founder Christophe Leclercq and editor Frédéric Simon.

The register went into effect a little over two years ago. What is your assessment: which are its strengths and which its shortcomings?

A main achievement of the register is its scope. The register covers all types of stakeholders, interest groups and lobbies. Though people tend to focus on consultancies or the private industry, there are some 6,000 organisations represented in the register. About 400 of these are consultancies. If you focus on them only, you’re missing a lot of stakeholders.

Concerning shortcomings, firstly we would like the Commission to incentivise organisations who actually register. They could decline non-registered lobbyists to speak at Commission events, or have Commission staff ask people regularly whether they’re registered; that could push people. It seldom happens today, which is a shame.

Of course, members of Parliament and Commission officials should be able to meet anyone they’d like. They should get insights, facts and arguments from all sides. But putting the request to register front and centre would help.

A second shortcoming is that the office running the register doesn’t have many resources. We would like to see more resources devoted to checking the facts. Policing the register, so to speak.

If you look at the register, there are some organisations whose numbers don’t quite add up. The team administering the register has admitted that some of their calls were wrong, or that they falsely accused companies for not being registered.

The large majority [of resources] is spent on trying to check the numbers. Consultancies simply write down their clients and what they pay. I think that for an in-house lobbying company, it might be more difficult to define how to count: if you have your expert coming down for expert meetings, do you have to count this?

You don’t want to create a massive administrative burden either. But the guidelines could be made clearer.

EPACA has done efforts to increase transparency as well. What do you regard as your biggest achievements since June 2011?

I think our main achievement is that we are now on the record [in the transparency register]. It’s sort of an acknowledgement that we exist. I usually claim that the register didn’t change our behaviour much. Even before the register existed, it wasn’t efficient to be non-transparent when dealing with the institutions. Transparency was our way of working, even before.

At the very start, some of our clients reacted somewhat sensitive when I told them that they’d have to register. There were some companies that weren’t so enthusiastic about it. But these days, a new client comes in and usually understands that this is the way it works.

For some clients, being discreet is almost the name of the game. Do they comply with the rules easily?

I haven’t seen a single company refusing our request to register them.

There is a famous loophole in the transparency initiatives, regarding law firms. They claim secrecy privileges, which would apply to legal cases but not to pre-legal activities like lobbying. Are you making progress in closing this loophole?

I hope so. EPACA would like to see the law firms being integrated in the register since they often compete with us directly. I have looked at their marketing material and they offer public affairs activities too. Why would it be so difficult to separate these activities and put the law firms and lobbyists in the register?

Moving towards the European elections in May 2014 will probably create a momentum around the issue. Could you use this momentum to close this law firm loophole?

Maybe we could, yes. We support a broad debate on lobbying and transparency. The issue for Brussels-based organisations is that election campaigns aren’t run in Brussels. It could be difficult to get our voice heard in the national campaigns.

Another discussion that sparked when the Transparency Register was launched, was to extend it to the national level. National organisations would have to register. Where do you stand on that?

I am afraid we didn’t get that far on this. In our position in the ETI revision procedure, we might state that we would like to see the Commission spreading the word on the register, and that it would be great to have similar registers in EU member states.

Brussels-based public affairs organisations all invest more in working at member states level; both in legislation and implementation of legislation. When we’re confronted with 28 different types of registers, it complicates things for us. And I think the Commission agrees.

If we look at consultancies’ branding, they tend to emphasize their communication expertise and ‘reputation building’ for clients. So-called corporate social responsibilities (CSR) activities are put front and centre. Are the less admirable activities hidden from the public eye?

I don’t see that conflict. Consultancies are not objective observers of our clients. CSR and reputation building is part of the marketing and communication around any campaign.

But EPACA’s own code of conduct states clearly that members cannot “intentionally misrepresent their status nor the nature of their inquiries”. You’re drawing all the attention to one part of your activities, while not discussing the other part. Isn’t this a fine line vis-à-vis the code?

I never saw it as a fine line. Every company represents their own interests and there will be other companies and clients presenting the other side of things. I don’t think that’s the same as misrepresenting the facts.

Consultancies often mention they provide ‘coalition building’, which often implies digging up stories about victims or looking for grass-roots people to support a case. There has been a number of cases of such ‘astroturfing’, which raised eyebrows. Has EPACA had to take action on such cases?

We haven’t been confronted with such cases. There is nothing wrong with coalition building, but the organisations have to be transparent about it.

This phenomenon probably was one of the elements that triggered the register. In the past, there were lots of newly founded organisations doing the lobbying, while the companies who hired them were operating far behind the front.

These associations play an important role, but they should also register and disclose who finances them. When I look at these organisations’ websites, I try to find out who finances them. I hope that MEPs do the same.

Your own company has its roots in Scandinavia, where there’s a predominantly ‘clean’ culture on lobbying. Have you ever been shocked by what happens in Brussels?

No. I do get questions from Swedish visitors about the “shady lobbying”. In fact, it is not shady at all:  I’ve been here for almost fifteen years and didn’t get cynical about it.

In the end, it’s not the most expensive campaigns that win but the ones with the best facts. EPACA members often aren’t working on the large campaigns either; it is more about changing one paragraph in a directive. Most of the lobbying is very technical and not political. 

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

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