Commission hints at July changes to lobby register

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The European Commission last week (4 June) hinted at possible changes to its lobbyists register ahead of a review in July. The development comes as the register is set to celebrate its first birthday.

The register, launched by Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas last summer, will celebrate its first birthday on 23 June. 

The Commission has invited stakeholders to submit proposals for a reformed register by 15 June ahead of an internal review, to take place in July. 

‘Fine-tuning’ required 

“No doubt after a year, there will be a need for some fine-tuning, and I think the Commission will do that in very clear terms,” said Vice-President Kallas’s spokesperson, Valérie Rampi. “There’s a lot of room for improvement, no doubt, but we’ll see how that plays out by the end of the month. Without doubt, there will be changes to make.”

“We’ll analyse all feedback carefully and do the review in July,” she added, stressing the importance of judging the register on qualitative rather than simply quantitative terms. 

Indeed, opinions vary as to the actual number of lobbyists active in Brussels (EURACTIV 10/06/08). At present, just over 1,500 organisations have signed up to the Commission’s scheme, but Kallas has cited a figure of 15,000 individuals active in EU policymaking circles in the past.   

Lobby transparency groups, meanwhile, remain convinced that the voluntary approach embraced by the EU executive is not working. 

“Most lobbyists are not going to disclose relevant information voluntarily,” said Jorgo Riss, director of Greenpeace’s European Unit and a member of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU), a transparency NGO. 

ALTER-EU presented a report last week alleging that “only around 23% of Brussels lobby organisations have registered so far,” and “much of the information disclosed is insufficient or questionable”. 

According to the NGO’s own estimates, there are 2,600 lobbyists operating in Brussels, of whom 593 have registered. The organisation is complaining that a lack of clear guidelines for inclusion means that “the register is increasingly cluttered by associations that play no role in lobbying the EU”.  

Current register ‘inadequate’ 

Moreover, “think-tanks and law firms are boycotting the register, while major corporate lobby groups are still poorly represented,” which ALTER-EU cites as proof of the “inadequacy” of the Commission’s approach. 

The EU executive refuted this assessment. Kallas’s spokesperson Valérie Rampi insisted that she saw “quite a lot of big players” among those registered and declared the former Estonian prime minister to be “satisfied” with the sign-up rate so far. 

“The Commission has always said that it wants to work on the basis of a voluntary approach, but if this were to prove unsatisfactory or insufficient, it would be quite prepared to introduce a mandatory system,” Rampi added. 

The ALTER-EU report further claims that “unclear financial disclosure requirements allow lobby groups to disguise the size of their lobbying effort”. This makes it “impossible to determine who the biggest spenders really are and what policies they are trying to influence”. 

The NGO is calling on the Commission to develop a mandatory system to replace the voluntary one in 2010, close “loopholes” on financial disclosure, more clearly define what constitutes lobbying, “punish” non-compliance and disclosure of misleading information, and end exemptions for sectors like competition policy. 

Commission urges Council participation

In April, the EU executive and the European Parliament agreed common guidelines and a code of conduct for creating a single, one-stop-shop register for both institutions (see ‘Background’). 

But the Council, which represents governments, has so far been reluctant to join the common scheme. Many of its employees are seconded from national posts at home, making their inclusion in an EU register more difficult. 

“Vice-President Kallas has expressed his regret and disappointment that the Council has not considered joining the register, and has written to the Swedish Presidency to ask […] whether the Council would reconsider its position,” said Commission spokesperson Rampi. 

Work on implementing the Commission-Parliament scheme is expected to progress when the new EU assembly starts work this summer. 

"The register's main purpose is to safeguard the credibility of how decisions are taken in the EU institutions. It's for the organisations involved to decide whether to submit to such openness and transparency," said Valérie Rampi, spokesperson for European Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas

Moreover, the register "brings added value to citizens, who can see for themselves how many interest representatives actually exist, how in financial terms they might seek to influence decision-making in the EU, what their turnover is and who their clients are," Rampi said. 

"One year on, the voluntary EU lobby register is still being snubbed by a large majority of lobbyists in Brussels. The Commission's soft approach is not working," said Jorgo Riss, director of Greenpeace's European Unit and a member of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU). 

Another ALTER-EU member, Corporate Europe Observatory research director Olivier Hoedeman, said that in its current form, the Commission's register "is unfit to answer even the most basic questions on transparency". 

"The register tells us nothing about how many lobbyists operate in Brussels, who they are, what they spend and what they lobby on," Hoedeman added. 

In April, the EU executive and the European Parliament agreed common guidelines and a code of conduct for creating a single lobby register for the two institutions (EURACTIV 23/04/09). 

The announcement was soon criticised by Green MEPs for being little more than a "PR exercise", claims which were utterly refuted by the European Commission (EURACTIV 27/04/09). 

The decision to move ahead on a common scheme came after the EU executive had launched a voluntary register for lobbyists seeking to influence its policymaking in June last year (EURACTIV 24/06/08) as part of a wider transparency initiative launched in 2005 (see EURACTIV LinksDossier). 

German Socialist MEP Jo Leinen has expressed optimism that a common register between the Parliament and the Commission could be drawn up, but warned that it may have to wait until the next Parliament (EURACTIV 28/01/09). 

But other Brussels insiders believe it will take "a lot more time" before agreement on a common, mandatory register can be reached, speculating over a possible "broker's role" for the Commission between the Parliament and a "reluctant" Council (EURACTIV 15/10/08). 

Conversely, both Commissioner Kallas (EURACTIV 23/03/09) and EU Ombudsman P. Nikiforos Diamandouros (EURACTIV 18/02/09) earlier this year set out their hopes that the upcoming Swedish EU Presidency would make progress on transparency and address the Council's hesitant attitude to the register. 

  • 15 June 2009: Deadline for stakeholders wishing to submit contributions to Commission review. 
  • 23 June 2009: Commission register's first birthday. 
  • July: EU executive to publish assessment of lobby register's first year, including proposals for its future. 
  • July-End 2009: Swedish EU Presidency expected to prioritise lobby transparency. 

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