Professor: Lobbying debate will continue beyond 2009 elections

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Debate over the registration of interest groups lobbying the EU institutions will continue beyond the establishment of the new Commission and Parliament in 2009, said Rinus van Schendelen, deputy chairman of the European Centre for Public Affairs and professor of political science at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University, in an interview with EURACTIV.

Rinus van Schendelen is deputy chairman of the European Centre for Public Affairs and professor of political science at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University. He is the author of some 200 books and articles on lobbying the EU institutions. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

Where do public affairs firms currently stand on the Commission’s European Transparency Initiative (ETI)? 

In my observation, most firms active in Brussels – meaning either consultancies or firms with in-house lobbyists – are now considering the opportunities and/or threats of the ETI. In fact, from the two ETIs, as the European Commission and the European Parliament have each published their own, with many differences, which will be standardised by an inter-institutional agreement (IIA) that also includes the Council, as the Parliament is demanding. 

How many public affairs firms have signed up to the register as yet? How would you assess its success so far? 

Almost 500 entities (not only firms) seem to have registered so far. This is anyhow a substantial mass that shall have weight on the next developments of the ETI. It is not possible to translate that amount into a percentage of the total number of lobby groups that, according to the Commission or the Parliament, fall under its definition of a lobbyist because nobody knows or can know their total numbers. 

The lobbyists register was launched for an ‘experimental phase’ of one year: What do you expect the outcome to be in a year’s time? 

After the formation of the new Commission and new Parliament in 2009, there will be some [kind of] evaluation of their ETIs and Parliament may continue to lobby for an IIA. Therefore, the ETI will remain a current and political dossier. 

For the IIA endeavour, I expect that both Council and Commission will defend the position that transparency should, for the sake of EU decision-making and integration, not be maximised but optimised, because no settlement of conflicts among stakeholders can take place effectively in ‘the open air’. 

However, once a compromise has been reached every decision must be explainable publicly. Optimisation shall become the new catchword. 

How do you see a common register taking shape between all three EU institutions in the long run? 

The IIA will take a lot more time. The Council will be most reluctant, and the Commission will be in the middle between the Council and the Parliament and may become the winning broker. 

The lobbyists register debate has dominated recently. Do you now consider it to be closed? What other transparency issues do you expect to come to the fore? 

The register debate is far from new. It started in 1991 with the report of Dutch Socialist MEP Alman Metten, ‘The Shadows of Brussels’, followed by the first Parliament hearings on the matter in 1992 and the first prescripts in 1997. 

Both the planned ETI evaluations and the Parliament’s ambition for an IIA will keep the topic on the agenda. Anti-lobby lobby groups may become more moderate, as they have just received from their campaigning in recent years the boomerang from the Parliament that has brought them under its definition of a lobbyist. [Parliament] is now asking them for more financial disclosure (expenditure and income) plus representation. 

What are the methodology issues regarding registering under the ETI? 

The core problem remains the definition of a lobbyist, which is now “carrying out activities with the objective of influencing the policy-formulation and decision-making processes of the EU institutions”. 

The Parliament’s application of this definition is clearly broader and therefore more valid than that of the Commission, as it includes NGOs. But both ETIs are leave out, firstly, all lobby groups from governments, such as from domestic ministries, regions, municipalities and agencies, which in my observation do not behave substantially differently on the EU playing field from private lobby groups, and secondly, all the people going part-time to and from meetings of the Commission’s expert committees and comitology committees, who also should fall under that formally established definition. 

Do you think the ETI will increase public understanding of public affairs in Europe? 

Yes, I expect more and better public understanding of public affairs in the EU thanks to the ETI and maybe the IIA. 

By far, most lobby entities and lobbyists have already been playing the game in a clean and decent manner for a long time, because the social control among lobby groups and from both the receiver’s side (the officials in the EU institutions) and the watching journalists is much stronger than any ETI. 

No lobby group or lobbyist wants to become scandalised, rightly or wrongly, as this would bring it into isolation on the playing field. The ETIs and maybe the IIA only strengthen that social control. 

Thanks to this, journalists will have more difficulty finding the smoke and fire of ‘not so decent and clean lobbying’, simply because there will be even less. 

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