Interview – Friends of the Earth’s Paul de Clerck on lobbying transparency

Registration should be made mandatory for all lobbyists across the board, including NGOs, argues corporate accountability campaigner Paul de Clerck of Friends of the Earth.

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”.

Read the short version of this interview

Commissioner Kallas recently said he would press ahead with a registry of lobbyists in Brussels to collect information about who tries to influence who and with what financial means. You argue that the registry should be mandatory but some PA professionals say this poses practical problems, especially for the many lobbyists who come to Brussels on an exceptional basis. How do you think this problem can be overcome?

That would depend on the time and resources that they spend on the lobby work. There could be a minimum threshold. If they come twice per year to Brussels for one or two meetings, they would not have to fulfil all the requirements for registration in the database. 

But there are also a lot of lobbyists from member states who come on a very regular basis to Brussels. For them, it should not be any different from lobbyists who are based in Brussels. They should also register. It is a web-based system so it is not a problem for them to fulfil the requirements. Lobbyists from outside the EU should also fulfil these requirements. 

Would enforcement not become problematic? How can Brussels enforce rules and possibly sanctions on people who live outside Brussels?

For lobbyists who do not register or who submit wrong information, the type of sanctions I would see would be to deny them access to European institutions for a certain amount of time. It is of course only possible for institutional activities such as public meetings organised by the Commission or the Parliament. But it is of course never possible to forbid a lobbyist from speaking to an MEP. That would not be a possible sanction. But it would be possible that a lobbyist is forbidden to meet with Commission officials if he does not fulfil the requirements. There could be a kind of ‘black list’ of lobbyists who do not fulfil the requirements. 

I do not think there is a substantial difference between lobbyists based in Brussels and lobbyists based in one of the member states in relation to a possible sanction of this kind. Now, I don’t see it as our role as NGOs to establish sanction mechanisms. That is up to the Commission. But I could imagine that these kinds of sanctions would be the most effective, even more than financial sanctions. 

How could the sanctions be enforced?

The Commission invites stakeholders from different sectors for discussions on a regular basis. If a lobbyist, a lobby firm, an NGO or whoever else does not fulfil the requirements, they would not be invited anymore. I think this is not such a complicated mechanism to apply.

But blacklisted organisations or individuals could then find other ways of exerting influence that could also run counter to ethical standards…

A registration system cannot prevent every kind of misconduct. There are always going to be people going round the system. But lobbying to a large degree depends on the credibility of lobbyists. If you are on a black list your credibility will drop. Of course you can always find other ways to influence EU officials but I don’t think that will be very effective. The more opaque you get the more your credibility is undermined. The fact that some people find a way to get around it should not be a reason not to apply a reasonably simple system.

Kallas said he would favour effective self-regulation by lobbyists rather than imposing a mandatory system on them. But self-regulatory codes are at the time limited in the number of signatories and they do not include NGOs. Would you support a more inclusive self-regulatory code and would your organisation be ready to sign up to it? 

For most lobbyists, signing up to a mandatory register would not be a problem because they already fulfil these requirements in the USA or Canada. But there are also a number of organisations who are purposely trying to put up a smokescreen about who they represent and how they are run. Groups like that are never going to sign up to a voluntary code. A voluntary system simply does not work. And I am very curious to hear how Mr Kallas plans to solve this issue. 

If there was a code from lobbyists with a good sanctions mechanism, then it would have almost the same impact as a mandatory system. 

So you would support that kind of self-regulation?

I would only support a system where everyone – including NGOs – has an obligation to sign up to it, with an effective implementation and sanction mechanism. A code that fulfils these requirements has the same impact and effectively is a mandatory system.

How do you explain that no NGO has so far signed up to self-regulatory codes of conduct by the public affairs community in Brussels? Are they such separate worlds that they cannot be governed by the same set of rules?

I think that they can be ruled by the same rules and that is also the logic behind what ALTER-EU is saying. What we are proposing for lobbyists would also be applicable to ourselves as well because a lot of the NGOs are lobbyists. I don’t think there should be different rules for industry lobbyists and NGOs. 

But how do you explain such strong divergence? I am not aware of a code of conduct for NGOs…

NGOs in ALTER-EU have not signed up to self-regulatory codes because the codes will only deal with a small part of the problem. Instead of a voluntary system we are advocating a mandatory system. And when this comes into force, we will sign up to it as well. 

There is also already a Commission website [CONNECS] where the financial sources of NGOs can be found. It is a not a code of conduct but a website where you can find information about the income and aims of NGOs.

But it does not list the so-called fake grass-roots NGOs that ALTER-EU is criticising…

Yes, the website is also voluntary so a number of NGOs do not register. And this can only be overcome by making the system mandatory.

Another criticism of the mandatory registry is that is creates a threshold and that it would effectively bar some organisations and individuals from interacting with EU institutions. Would this not run counter to the EU ideal of openness where consultations as wide as possible are held with civil society before and during the legislative process?

Our proposal does not mean that those who are below the threshold cannot lobby anymore. We [ALTER- EU] suggest that those who spend less than 5,000 euro over three months on lobbying should not register. But of course they could still continue to lobby. 

How can one be sure about an organisation’s lobby resources? Couldn’t one just lie about it or circumvent this requirement?

Yes, it is possible to lie about it and, again, that cannot be completely overcome. But at least for the bigger organisations based in Brussels (the bigger lobby firms but also the bigger NGOs), it is quite clear that they are going to spend more than 20,000 euro per year on lobbying. If such a system is put in place, the obvious organisations, NGOs and lobby firms will definitely fall under it. And of course, there will be a couple of lobbyists who will falsify the data to fall under the threshold. But that will only be 1 or 2 per cent of the total volume and I think it is more relevant to make sure that the system works for the majority.

What is your impression about the debate on transparency and lobbying, and the way it has evolved since Kallas launched his initiative in March?

In October last year, when the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) sent its letter to President Barroso, there was a rather defensive reaction from public affairs professionals. What you see now in the lobby community is acknowledgement that some kind of improved system is necessary. I see reports coming from public affairs circles themselves which are saying that the current codes are not effective and only include a very small proportion of lobbyists. I think there is widespread agreement about that. 

The discussions tend to focus more and more on whether it should be a voluntary or a mandatory system but not so much on whether there should be a formal registration. And it is in the interests of democracy that there is more transparency on who is lobbying who on behalf of who.

And there is another less positive tendency which attempts to broaden the debate from lobbying transparency to a much wider debate about the transparency of all the EU institutions and the whole EU decision-making process.  

A debate which actually also forms part of the transparency initiative launched by Commissioner Kallas and which should not be forgotten…

Yes, but you can also make the discussion so broad that no concrete measure will be adopted at the end of the day. If you include every element related to the EU institutions and decision-making processes, then you risk it becoming such a big debate that you cannot arrive at a practical solution anymore. And I think that would be achieving exactly the opposite of what is needed if you consider the democratic deficit of Europe and the No votes in France and the Netherlands. You would almost have to come up with a new Constitution! And it would again take several years for any concrete proposals to be back on the table. 

So I think it is important to put the discussion about lobbying transparency in a wider perspective but we should not forget that this is also a concrete issue which we have to address with concrete proposals.

One final comment about the transparency initiative in general?

A question which is not addressed in the Kallas initiative is the issue of privileged access to EU decision-makers. This is the second important pillar of what ALTER-EU is about. The Commission, in consultations and in working groups, often gives more access to lobbyists from industry and private companies than to other civil society groups. This is something that we want to have addressed as well. 

Sometimes of course it is understandable that you talk first with the manufacturers and the industry, especially when you are talking about issues related to technical improvement like reducing CO2 emissions from cars. But I think that, in the light of giving equal access to different stakeholders, this is not a model that should be followed. You have to involve other stakeholders in these discussions as well.

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