EU institutions edge closer to common lobby register

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Plans to create a single lobby register for the EU executive and the European Parliament gained momentum yesterday (22 April) after representatives of both institutions agreed common guidelines and a code of conduct. But transparency campaigners labelled the proposals “very disappointing”.

The inter-institutional working group (IWG) set up to examine the feasibility of the scheme – comprising Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas, European Parliament Vice-President Diana Wallis (ALDE; UK), and German MEPs Jo Leinen (PES) and Ingo Friedrich (EPP-ED) – first met last December. 

It has convened in private a total of four times since the Parliament first called for the creation of a mandatory public register common to all three institutions last May (EURACTIV 09/05/08). 

Yesterday’s Strasbourg meeting, which was described by the participants as “constructive and productive”, agreed to create a single, ‘one-stop-shop’ register for both the Parliament and the Commission and drew up a draft code of conduct for its operation. 

Common register will be voluntary… 

While participation in the scheme will at first remain voluntary, “Parliament remains committed to the objective […] of a common mandatory register to be agreed between Council, Commission and Parliament,” according to a joint statement released yesterday by the IWG. 

The statement makes clear “that each institution must retain control over access to its own premises,” meaning that lobbyists wishing to have regular access to Parliament “must, de facto, register” given that institution’s requirement for lobbyists to wear a badge while on its premises. 

Indeed, the badge issue has long made the potential inclusion of individual names in any joint register a contentious issue in the transparency debate, with the Parliament’s requirement for individuals to obtain a personal badge to access its buildings making it less flexible than the Commission in this regard. 

…and list individual names 

The IWG agreed that the common register shall include names of the people “legally responsible” for the organisations listed, and where applicable, the name of their director, managing partner or principal contact person in Brussels. 

It will also feature the names of those who have separately registered with the Parliament in order to receive a badge. 

Financial disclosure 

Another hotly-debated issue is that of financial disclosure. 

The IWG agreed that the common scheme will require consultancies and law firms to declare their “turnover attributable to lobbying the EU institutions” alongside the “relative weight of their major clients,” while in-house lobbyists and trade associations will need to provide an “estimate of the costs associated with direct lobbying” in this regard. 

NGOs and think-tanks, meanwhile, will have to publish their overall budgets and a “breakdown” of their main sources of funding. 

The institutions also agreed to create a “common monitoring, complaints and sanctions mechanism” to address breaches of the code of conduct, with possible punitive action including “long-term suspension or exclusion from the register”. 

Joint website launched 

Pending the establishment of the proposed ‘one-stop-shop’, yesterday also saw the launch of a website on the EU’s Europa server giving joint access to the Commission and Parliament registers for the first time. 

UK Liberal MEP Diana Wallis, the Parliament’s vice-president responsible for transparency, said the new webpage would give citizens a “more comprehensive insight into who is seeking to influence decision-making at EU level”. 

The guidelines may be revised pending the outcome of the Commission’s review of its own register in June, with “final agreement” between the two institutions yet to be reached. 

Council still outside scheme 

The Council, which represents governments, did not participate in the IWG’s work. Many of its employees are seconded from national posts at home, making their inclusion in an EU register more difficult. 

Reiterating their invitation to the Council to participate in the scheme, the Parliament and the Commission said they “strongly regret that the Council, as a co-legislator, has not yet been willing to join negotiations on a common register”. 

Meanwhile, “work aimed at establishing [the single scheme for the Commission and the Parliament] should continue as early as possible in the next parliamentary term,” the joint statement concluded. 

"I look forward, as coordinator of the current Parliament delegation having negotiated with the Commission, to a final agreement early in the life of the new Parliament, and call on the incoming Swedish [EU] Presidency to take up this issue with a view to the Council also participating in the common register," said UK Liberal Democrat MEP Diana Wallis (ALDE), the European Parliament vice-president responsible for transparency and a member of the working group. 

Welcoming the agreement, Wallis said "the approval of a revised code of conduct for lobbyists and the guidelines for our future common register are a positive outcome for the transparency of the lawmaking process at EU level". 

Last week, the lobby register's founder, Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas, told a European Policy Centre briefing that the scheme had been effective enough not to require a mandatory approach (EURACTIV 20/04/09). 

"I am convinced that a voluntary approach is much better than a mandatory one, because it offers an incentive to join," Kallas said. 

Regarding the future common register, the commissioner warned that the two institutions may have to retain separate access requirements. "The kind of people who come to the Parliament is different from those who come to the Commission, so a common badge is not easy." 

But "the idea is that registrants should not have to make different applications," he said, adding: "The Parliament wants a common register before the elections, and it is realistic to expect that." 

In a letter addressed to the MEPs on the inter-institutional working group earlier this week, the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU), a transparency NGO, expressed its "growing concern over the final outcome of the [IWG's] deliberations," calling for a common, mandatory register with financial disclosure in brackets of €10,000 to be drawn up and providing clearer guidelines on how to declare lobbying. 

Describing the outcome of the talks as "extremely disappointing," Erik Wesselius of Corporate Europe Observatory, a transparency NGO, told EURACTIV that "the 'portal page' and the joint code of conduct do not improve transparency on EU lobbying in any way. In fact, they implicitly endorse the Commission's flawed approach on lobbying transparency". 

Wesselius, a member of ALTER-EU's steering committee, continued: "While last year's EP resolution called for a mandatory register, the working group now concludes that a common register should start on a non-mandatory basis and should only include the names of lobbyists that have an access badge to the EP premises. And the working group made no concrete proposals for meaningful financial disclosure." 

"It's now up to the new Parliament to ensure that Europe will get true lobbying transparency," he concluded. 

Paul de Clerck of Friends of the Earth Europe, also involved with ALTER-EU, told EURACTIV that the agreement is "very disappointing, as it assumes that the Commission's register is a success". 

"After almost 10 months, it is obvious that this lobby register is a failure. Only 20% of Brussels-based lobby groups (538 out of 2,600) have signed up, and important groups such as lawyers and think tanks are boycotting the register," he said. 

"The information in the register is often dubious," de Clerck continued. "Cefic, the lobby association for the chemical industry with about 150 people working in its Brussels office, claims to spend less than 50,000 euros on lobbying. In other cases, the information does not provide any transparency, for instance Burson-Marsteller claiming that all of its clients pay them between 0 and 690,000 euros for lobby work. 

"This weak proposal makes us question how serious the Commission's and the Parliament's commitments for transparency are," he concluded. 

Declan Ganley, who chairs the pan-European anti-Lisbon party Libertas, on Monday called for the establishment of "a 100% no exceptions mandatory register for lobbyists in Brussels" as part of his party’s commitment "to bringing accountability and transparency to European politics". 

Accusing Commissioner Kallas of "not requiring the 15,000 lobbyists in Brussels" to sign up despite "less than 9%" of them having registered of their own accord, Ganley described it as "completely unacceptable" that "lobbyists in Brussels will be left to regulate themselves". 

"The fact that thousands of lobbyists who influence the policy that affects everyone in Europe are doing so without having to identify themselves or declare their interests is indicative of the lack of transparency in Brussels as a whole," he said. 

The European Commission launched a voluntary register for lobbyists seeking to influence its policymaking last June (EURACTIV 24/06/08) as part of a wider transparency initiative launched in 2005 (see EURACTIV LinksDossier). 

While opinions vary as to the actual number of lobbyists active in Brussels (EURACTIV 10/06/08), Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas has cited a figure of 15,000 individuals in the past. 

On 8 May 2008, the European Parliament 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 individual lobbyists who infringe its rules (EURACTIV 09/05/08). 

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 after the European elections in June (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. 

Meanwhile, EU citizens are poised to elect a new European Parliament in June and a new EU executive is expected to be appointed in the autumn (see EURACTIV LinksDossier). 

  • June 2009: European Parliament elections. 
  • June 2009: Commission to review success of lobby register's first year. 
  • Early in next EP term: Work on common register to continue. 
  • Oct. 2009: Official end of current Commission's mandate. 

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