EU lobby register ‘will never be mandatory’

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The voluntary lobbyists register introduced by the European Commission last year has been effective enough not to require a mandatory approach, Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas said last week (17 April).

“I am convinced that a voluntary approach is much better than a mandatory one, because it offers an incentive to join,” the commissioner told a European Policy Centre briefing on Friday. 

Indeed, “many people who support a mandatory approach do not want any kind of register at all,” he warned. 

As of 17 April, 1,317 bodies had signed up. Describing this as “quite a number,” the former Estonian prime minister said he would have considered 1,000 by June as a success. 

Asked what changes should be expected when the Commission reviews the success of the register’s first year in June, Kallas said: “I will never go to mandatory. That’s my answer.” 

Speaking to EURACTIV after the event, a Commission spokesperson later clarified that Mr Kallas had been expressing his satisfaction with the register’s progress so far, and said the EU executive had not ruled out moving to a mandatory format at a later date if necessary. 

Financial disclosure ‘fine-tuning’ 

Instead, he identified financial disclosure of lobbying expenses as the main aspect to require fine-tuning. “Without financial disclosure, the whole exercise would have been irrelevant. But ten minutes before [the Commission’s] final meeting to decide on the register, the issue was still open,” Kallas said. 

Debate has centred on the level of detail required, with transparency NGOs claiming that a requirement for law firms and consultancies to disclose revenue related to lobbying in brackets of €50,000 or percentage brackets of 10% is too broad. 

But the commissioner warned against focusing too heavily on the issue. “Don’t forget the commitments to good conduct you make by signing up too,” he said. 

Towards a common register? 

Last May, a European Parliament report called for the creation of a mandatory register common to all three EU institutions (EURACTIV 09/05/08). Kallas said ongoing negotiations between the Commission and the EU assembly in this regard were “very good”, adding that another such meeting would take place this week. 

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

Security concerns 

Nevertheless, “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,” Kallas cautioned, before warning that security would be an issue in any joint scheme. 

“I am responsible for anything that might go wrong, and a badge allowing free access to the entire Commission premises would be unacceptable. It is more important to accurately know who is in the building,” the commissioner further elaborated. 

Asked whether he expected the Council to participate, Kallas said that institution had “not declared any interest in joining the register,” but said the Parliament was putting it under pressure to change its governance system. “I don’t know any more than that,” he added. 

The EU executive will review the success of its lobby register this summer. 

Anti-Fraud and Administration Commissioner Siim Kallas, whose portfolio covers, in his words, "everything that can go wrong," said he was "satisfied and proud" of the progress he had made during his term. 

Quoting European Policy Centre Chief Executive Hans Martens, the commissioner said: "The move to increased regulation will depend a lot on whether or not we have a case like the Abramoff scandal in Washington. That would certainly change thinking. The automatic response from the Commission to any scandal of that sort would have to be more control." 

He continued by warning: "We should focus first of all on getting what we have now to work well. More regulation is not always the answer, since that just sharpens the interest in finding loopholes. It is much more important to create a climate and ethics of transparency and openness." 

Regarding the mandatory lobby registration system in place in the United States, Kallas warned that US legislation was "500 pages long and has many weaknesses". 

European Policy Centre Chief Executive Hans Martens said the Brussels-based think-tank "would like a deeper, more detailed financial disclosure". "Registrants are not asked to disclose very much at the moment," he added. 

A representative of French giant Michelin said: "All the organisations which want to push transparency have registered already. To go beyond this, you would need to offer registrants concrete advantages. I go to the Commission several times a week, and I still have to give my personal details every time. Why not have card systems?" 

Hanns Glatz of German car firm Daimler lamented that the EU executive's "culture of sitting down with key stakeholders and inviting a select few around the table before carrying out impact assessments" had "got lost". 

He also claimed that "the huge number of highly-qualified young officials without business experience in the European Commission is making business uneasy". For instance, "it would be better if people working on competition law in the Commission had acquired some business experience first," Glatz said. 

Georg Brodach of power technology firm ABB Europe claimed that there is a "pro-NGO bias in public life and the press". "If you receive public funding, are you still an NGO?," he asked. 

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) recently 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 register's first year. 
  • Oct. 2009: Official end of current Commission's mandate. 

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