Commission ‘satisfied’ with lobby transparency progress

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The European Commission yesterday (22 June) declared the first year of its lobby register a success ahead of an internal review next month. But officials admitted that more bodies would have to sign up for the scheme to paint a “full picture” of lobbying in Brussels.

“Without wanting to be too self-congratulatory, [the register] exceeds expectations,” said Jens Nymand Christensen, director of better regulation and institutional issues at the Commission’s secretariat-general. 

“We’ve made major headway and the numbers are impressive,” he added. 

The register, launched by Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas a year ago to the day and which over 1,600 entities have joined, will be reviewed in July. 

The Commission opted for a voluntary scheme in the belief that peer pressure from registrants would provide enough motivation for others to sign up. 

Brussels-based public affairs consultants are also hailing the current register as a success, but transparency campaigners still believe a mandatory system would be more effective (EURACTIV 22/06/09). 

“The register keeps growing, and more and more bodies are joining. It is increasing by about 30 registrants per week. The voluntary approach has been confirmed as a success by these numbers, and most major Brussels-based PA firms are now in the register,” the Commission’s Christensen said. 

Transparency groups, meanwhile, do not share the EU executive’s view. 

The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) this week claimed that “less than 24% of Brussels-based lobby organisations and firms have registered so far,” basing its assessment on the European Parliament’s estimate that there are 2,600 registered lobby groups operating in the Belgian capital. 

Similarly, of the 165 Brussels consultancies listed in the European Public Affairs Directory, only 25 feature in the Commission’s register (15%), while just 86 (26%) of the directory’s 330 companies have signed up, according to ALTER-EU. 

Indeed, despite the Commission’s positive assessment, Christensen admitted that the scheme had taken longer than anticipated to get off the ground. 

“We expected that registration would be fast and significant in its first few months, and that everyone would be ready for the launch. This was not the case,” he said, explaining that registrants had spent “much longer deliberating than we expected, and they’re still coming in”. 

Law firms, think-tanks’ attitude ‘unsatisfactory’ 

Law firms have been particularly slow to join the scheme; something that the EU executive says is a cause for concern. “Law firms are not even close to being on a satisfactory level,” Christensen said, urging them to register in greater numbers. 

“We maintain that law firms are entitled to total secrecy in litigation processes, […] but lawyers permanently represent clients in Brussels outside of that process,” he explained. In doing so, “they’re lobbyists just like the rest and should be in [the register].” 

“We hope for a qualitative breakthrough with law firms and will hold meetings in the coming weeks explaining why we think they should sign up,” he added. 

The EU executive also wants to see more think-tanks join the scheme. “They set up panels and debates where very specific interests are seeking to influence the EU institutions, and they’re insufficiently represented. We cannot understand why they would have anything to hide,” Christensen explained. 

‘Attitudes changing’ 

Warning of the “dangers” of focusing too much on numbers, the Commission preferred to highlight how attitudes towards transparency in Brussels have changed since the register’s launch. 

“People are competing on the basis of whether they are in the register, which is a good thing. Membership shows that you’re one of the good guys in Brussels,” Christensen said. 

The Commission official claimed it had become standard practice since the scheme’s launch for staff at the EU executive to ask interlocutors whether they were in the register before meeting them. 

“It is then up to their own discretion whether to meet them or not,” he said. “It can still be in the Commission’s interest to sit down with non-registrants, but it will affect the relationship.” 

‘Voluntary scheme working’ 

Asked whether the revised register would be mandatory as ALTER-EU is demanding, Christensen replied, “for the moment, no, because this one is a success. We’re pleased with our system, and we don’t necessarily find mandatory systems elsewhere all that impressive”. 

“We chose a voluntary system believing that it would work, and we feel vindicated, because many of the big players in Brussels have joined. The pressure for mandatory is not as high as it was a year ago.” 

Nevertheless, Christensen was quick to stress that the EU executive would reconsider its stance if there was an “opportune moment” to do so. “We’re not saying we won’t ever look at it again,” he said. 

Inclusion of names ‘irrelevant’ 

The fact that the register requires only the names of organisations rather than individuals has long been one of the main criticisms of the Commission’s scheme. “Names of individual lobbyists must be listed,” said ALTER-EU on Monday. 

The Commission disagrees. “Publication of individual names is contrary to the logic and irrelevant to the process of transparency,” said Christensen yesterday. “We’re interested in the organisations and interests being represented.” 

Towards a joint register 

Christensen said stakeholders’ contributions to the EU executive’s review process would feed into the debate about the format of the joint register between the Commission and the Parliament. 

“Now the new Parliament has been elected, I expect we’ll return to discussions on establishing a joint register in the not-too-distant future,” he said. 

"We've come a long way in the last five years," said Jens Nymand Christensen, director of better regulation and institutional issues at the European Commission's secretariat-general. 

"[Before the transparency initiative] there was a perception that something was odd, that there was a black box in Brussels. But in our view, there's nothing to hide. We're an open institution," Christensen added. 

"We need the technical expertise of those on the outside to inform our policymaking. But outsiders perceived that there was something strange going on," he said, outlining Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas's motivation for launching the transparency initiative in 2005. 

Commenting on the results of the Commission's consultation procedure, Christensen said "contributions to the review reflect what we knew a year ago: some think we haven't gone far enough, and others think we've gone too far. We've tried to find the middle ground". 

According to the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU), much of the data contained in the current register is "flawed and misleading," while "the lack of clear guidelines also means that the register is increasingly cluttered by organisations that play no role in lobbying the EU". 

The transparency NGO claims that "unclear financial disclosure requirements allow lobby groups to disguise the size of their lobbying effort, making it impossible to determine who the biggest spenders are and what policies they are trying to influence". 

To address the register's alleged failings, ALTER-EU is calling on the Commission to develop a mandatory system to replace the voluntary one by 2010, close "loopholes" on financial disclosure, provide "clear and broad definitions" of what constitutes lobbying, punish non-compliance and disclosure of "misleading" information, and end exemptions for sectors such as competition policy. 

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

The register, launched by Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas last summer (EURACTIV 24/06/08), is celebrating its first birthday today (23 June). 

The scheme is designed to help citizens identify the lobbyists who seek to influence EU policymaking, and is part of a wider transparency initiative launched by Commissioner Kallas in 2005 (see EURACTIV LinksDossier). 

Meanwhile in April 2009, 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). 

A recent EURACTIV survey found that most industry federations and their members agree that the ability to influence EU policy by lobbying is federations' biggest added value for business (EURACTIV 08/04/09). 

Another found that a majority of businesses, consultancies and industry federations are supportive of transparency in principle despite being slow to sign up to the Commission's register (EURACTIV 09/03/09). 

  • 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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