Commission launches lobbyists register

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The European Commission yesterday (23 June) launched a voluntary register for lobbyists seeking to influence its policymaking amid criticism from transparency groups that the scheme does not go far enough.

Hailing the launch of the register as “a remarkable moment”, Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas described how lobby organisations were intensively competing to be the first to sign up by yesterday lunchtime.

“It is now up to lobbyists to demonstrate they are serious over the next twelve months while the Commission sorts out the technicalities,” Kallas said.

The register “will serve as a testing ground” for the feasibility of a register common to all EU institutions – Commission, Parliament and Council, the commissioner said earlier last month (EURACTIV 29/05/08). 

At the end of this one-year ‘experimental phase’, the Commission will assess whether it has been effective in increasing the transparency of lobbying activities in Brussels.   

The register features three main categories of lobbyists: “professional consultancies and law firms,” “corporate lobbyists and trade associations” and “NGOs and think tanks.” The requirements for inclusion in the register vary for all three: 

  • Professional consultancies and law firms: Signatories in this first category must disclose total revenue related to lobbying the EU institutions, either by placing their clients in boxes representing absolute amounts (brackets of €50,000) or percentages (brackets of 10%).
  • Corporate ‘in-house’ lobbyists and trade associations: This second category must provide an estimate of their costs associated with the direct lobbying of all the EU institutions.
  • NGOs and think-tanks: Those wishing to be included in the third category must publish the overall budget of their organisation and indicate their main sources of funding, for example public monies (European, national or sub-national). 

Lobbyists wishing to register must also either sign up to the Commission’s ‘Code of Conduct for Interest Representatives’ or abide by their own equivalent lobbyists code with identical or more stringent requirements. 

In return for fulfilling these criteria, registered lobbyists will receive alerts from the EU executive giving details of upcoming public consultations on policy areas of interest to them. 

Meanwhile, Commissioner Kallas has been appointed as the EU executive’s representative on a working group to work in conjunction with the Council and the Parliament to develop a proposal for a common, mandatory register for all three institutions by the end of the year. “The working group is ready to produce good results,” said the commissioner. 

Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas said lobbying is "a necessary and growing business" where "regulation is inescapable". He described the launch of the register as a "very important moment of cultural change in EU decision-making". Despite declaring himself "convinced" that a voluntary system is better than "heavy regulation", Kallas added: "The Commission has proposed a joint register for EU institutions and is pleased that the European Parliament supports the idea by proposing a joint working group to set up such a register as soon as possible." 

The register represents a challenge to lobbyists’ reputations as it is up to them to show that they have got nothing to hide, said a source at the EU executive

"The Commission's voluntary lobbyists register falls well short of Parliament's position on 8 May, which called for mandatory participation. The European Transparency Initiative is increasingly being exposed as a very pale imitation of the US' far-reaching Lobbying Disclosure Act," said MEP Monica Frassoni, the co-president of the Greens / EFA Group in the European Parliament. 

Frassoni described the register as "a Commission PR exercise that offers semblance but not substance of greater democratic scrutiny," adding: "It is an insult to the European Parliament and damaging to European citizens' trust in EU institutions and processes." 

Speaking on behalf of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU), Erik Wesselius of Corporate Europe Observatory lamented the "low quality of information in the register". He added: "This voluntary lobby register is more of a token gesture for transparency than an actual step forward. The Commission is obviously more worried about protecting the identity of lobbyists than it is in increasing transparency and restoring citizens' trust in the EU at a time when such trust is needed most." 

Craig Holman of US transparency group Public Citizen believes that compared to other tested systems like that of the US, "the voluntary nature and distortion [of the Commission's register] make it look like one of the world's weakest registers". 

"Financial disclosure is cloaked within huge ranges under the Commission's register and you won't see who is lobbying on whose behalf," while "the register cannot be used as the basis for a common lobbyists register with Parliament and the Council as it stands," he added. 

Describing the voluntary Commission register as " only […] a first step and an interim solution," the head of Transparency International's EU Office, Jana Mittermaier, said: "More needs to be done if the public is to understand by whom and how the legislative procedure of the EU is influenced." 

Mittermaier called for the establishment of a strong and mandatory common lobbyists register covering the Commission, the Council and the Parliament to be ensured, "building upon the experience and the infrastructure of the European Commission register". 

Commenting on the EU executive's willingness to accept other codes of conduct as equivalent to its own, Lyn Trytsman-Gray, the president of the board of the Society of European Affairs Professionals (SEAP), said: "We are very pleased that the Commission is publicly acknowledging SEAP’s importance to the European Transparency Initiative by offering registrants the possibility to choose to observe SEAP's Code of Conduct".

The European Public Affairs Consultancies Association (EPACA) "intends to register as an organisation, and in turn advises its constituent member companies to register".

The European Commission adopted a code of conduct regulating lobbyists' behaviour on 28 May (EURACTIV 30/05/08) as a forerunner to the voluntary register. 

Both initiatives form part of the wider transparency initiative launched by Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas in 2005. 

Meanwhile, the European Parliament on 8 May 2008 called for the creation of a mandatory public register common to all three institutions, providing for "full financial disclosure" and accompanied by a code of conduct complete with a mechanism for expelling lobbyists who infringe its rules (EURACTIV 09/05/08). 

  • By end 2008: Inter-institutional working group to present proposal for a common register. 
  • A year from now: Commission to evaluate success of its voluntary register. 
  • June 2009: European Parliament elections.

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