Abramoff scandal reignites Brussels lobbying debate

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Campaigners have seized on the Abramoff bribery scandal in Washington to urge US-style disclosure rules on Brussels lobbyists. But others say it only underlines deep differences between European and US party financing rules.

The Abramoff lobbying bribery scandal in Washington broke out at a time when the EU is contemplating stricter rules to oversee the at times ambiguous relations between pressure groups and policy-makers in Brussels.

“If we act early, Europe could perhaps avoid what is now happening in Washington,” the spokesperson for Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas told the Financial Times on Wednesday (18 January).

The Estonian Commissioner is preparing to open a wide-ranging debate on EU transparency with the launch of a green paper in February. The paper will raise a number of issues, including whether to impose US-style mandatory controls on the estimated 15,000 lobbyists trying to influence EU policy-makers in Brussels. 

The rules currently under consideration would mimic the US system by requiring pressure groups, PA firms and single lobbyists in Brussels to register in a central database and disclose how much money they receive and who they receive it from.

Public affairs professionals have so far resisted the idea, saying self-imposed codes of conduct provide enough guarantees against wrongdoing. They argue that the Commission and other EU institutions should clean up their act first and impose stricter controls on their own officials before taking care of the PA profession.

But their arguments were dismissed by Kallas. “Registers provided by lobbyists’ organisations in the EU are voluntary and incomprehensive and do not provide much information on the specific interests represented or how it is financed. Self imposed codes of conduct have few signatories and have so far lacked serious sanctions,” Kallas said in an October 2005 speech.

“The same goes for Non Governmental Organisations,” he added. “Some of the NGOs receiving funds from the Commission describe on their website one of their main tasks as: ‘lobbying the Commission’. The ‘European Transparency Initiative’ seeks to increase transparency in these networks,” he declared.

The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU), a coalition of NGOs including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other corporate watchdog groups, have seized on the Abramoff scandal to support calls for strict transparency rules on lobbyists in Brussels. On 17 January, ALTER-EU sent out a letter to Commissioner Kallas making specific recommendations "to avoid Abramoff scandals happening in Europe".

"In the US, the Abramoff scandal has led parties from all sides in Washington to call for a tightening of existing US lobbying disclosure and ethics rules," ALTER-EU said in a statement. "In Brussels, not even basic rules presently exist," said Erik Wesselius of Corporate Europe Observatory, a leading member of ALTER-EU. 

The coalition is urging the Commission to proceed quickly with mandatory registration for all Brussels lobbyists "instead of waiting for lobbyists to come up with ineffective voluntary codes". The system would require lobbying firms to disclose the sums they receive to convey their client's views to politicians. Individual corporations, NGOs and trade unions that run their own lobbying activities in Brussels would be bound by the same rules in order to "ensure equal access for different interest groups to EU decision-making".

ALTER-EU also suggests establishing "an independent public body with the necessary powers to act as a public guardian of lobbying transparency and ethics". It suggested that such a body could take the form of "a new lobbying transparency unit in the office of the European Ombudsman".

These calls are roundly rejected by associations of professional lobbyists. The Society of European Affairs Professionals (SEAP), an organisation representing individuals working in PA firms and corporate lobbyists in Brussels, said its own Code of Conduct "expressly forbids the use of financial inducements". The European Public Affairs Consultancies' Association (EPACA) also favours self-regulation over compulsory registration "because it has so far demonstrated its effectiveness". 

Indeed, no scandal of the magnitude of the Abramoff case has emerged in Brussels as of now. And as pointed out by SEAP, the reason for this may largely be that the party financing systems in the US and the EU differ fundamentally. 

"The EU lobbying tradition is very different from the US. EU lobbying aims to influence legislation by providing arguments, supported by data, rather than raising funds for politicians and political parties," SEAP points out. It therefore argues "conclusions should not be drawn from this particular case of lobbying excesses in the US for the work of professional European Affairs practitioners".

Jack Abramoff, a Washington lobbyist close to the Republican party, may have triggered one of the biggest corruption scandals in US history when it emerged last year that he had bribed several members of the US Congress to favour his client's interests. On January 3 and 4, Mr Abramoff pleaded guilty to charges of tax evasion, fraud and corruption directed at a public official.

The scandal prompted the resignation of Tom DeLay, the leader of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives on 7 January. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican who returned the 60,000 dollars that he received from Abramoff, announced on the following day that he would tighten up the already stringent rules regulating relations between lobbyists and members of the US Congress. Democrats are starting to be affected too, such as Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who has allegedly received thousands of dollars from Abramoff.

  • The Green Paper on the European Transparency Initiative is expected to be published in early February
  • The Commission could make formal legislative proposals after the consultation process is closed

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