Greens slam lobbying transparency ‘PR exercise’

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Green MEPs have described last week’s announcement by the EU institutions that they had reached agreement on a common lobby register as no more than a “poorly-disguised public relations exercise” ahead of the European elections. The claims were utterly refuted by the European Commission.

Plans to create a single lobby register for the EU executive and the European Parliament gained momentum last Wednesday (22 April) after representatives of both institutions agreed common guidelines and a draft code of conduct (EURACTIV 23/04/09). 

An inter-institutional working group (IWG) set up to examine the feasibility of the scheme agreed to create a single, ‘one-stop-shop’ register for both the Parliament and the Commission, and launched a new portal on the EU’s Europa website, giving joint access to the Commission and Parliament registers for the first time. 

The group decided that the joint register would be voluntary and list the names of individual lobbyists. 

Politicians ‘discredited’ 

But Green MEPs accused the Parliament’s representatives on the working group of shouting “hooray, great step for transparency,” while at the same time hoping “to bury the issue without anyone noticing before the elections”. 

Accusing the MEPs on the IWG of being “complicit with the Commission in producing a poorly-disguised public relations exercise,” Luxembourg MEP Claude Turmes, vice-president of the Greens group, described their actions as “exactly the kind of behaviour that discredits politicians in the public’s eyes”. 

“It is absurd that the socialist, conservative and liberal colleagues supposedly representing the Parliament are congratulating themselves on better transparency when they have not even consulted their own colleagues in the institution,” he said. 

“They trumpet a pro-transparency agenda, but hit the brakes when it comes to making decisions that will actually change things,” Turmes added. 

Italian MEP Monica Frassoni, the group’s co-president, called on the EU assembly’s president, Hans-Gert Pöttering, to ensure that the Parliament’s views are not “compromised” by the IWG’s conclusions. 

Lobby transparency ‘out of sight’ 

Transparency campaigners, meanwhile, warned that genuine lobbying transparency remained “out of sight” despite the IWG’s work. 

“The half-hearted attempt to bolt together two weak and very contrasting existing registers makes no attempt to address the fact that the current voluntary register of the European Commission has been shunned by a high proportion of lobby organisations and firms, nor the loopholes of the Parliament scheme, which allows thousands of lobbyists to enter on day passes without registering,” said the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) in a statement. 

Commission ‘has always followed guidelines’ 

Asked to respond to the Greens’ complaints that they had not been able to participate in the IWG, an official at the European Commission told EURACTIV that it was not for representatives of one institution to comment on the internal procedures of another. 

But the official was quick to stress that Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas, who represents the EU executive on the working group, had been following President José Manuel Barroso’s guidelines for consulting with the other institutions since the transparency initiative’s launch in 2005. 

The decision to launch a joint lobby register comes at a time when the EU institutions are especially keen to raise their profile ahead of the European elections in June. 

The proposals show a "lack of courage" that is "damaging the reputation of the European Parliament," said Italian MEP Monica Frassoni, co-president of the EU assembly's Greens/European Free Alliance (EFA) group, adding: "We are very disappointed about the understanding of the word 'transparency' in this House, and in particular by our three colleagues representing us in this process [European Parliament Vice-President Diana Wallis (ALDE; UK), and German MEPs Jo Leinen (PES) and Ingo Friedrich (EPP-ED)]". 

"More than a year ago, the Parliament voted clearly in favour of a mandatory register with disclosure of the names of individual lobbyists. It also demanded a strong monitoring and sanction mechanism," Frassoni continued. 

"This was followed by a year of deafening silence until Commissioner Kallas announced agreement on a voluntary register, hoping for a fait-accompli," she added. 

"The Greens will surely oppose the endorsement of any meaningless backroom decisions taken by a select few who are not interested in advancing the transparency agenda," Frassoni concluded. 

Accusing Commissioner Kallas of "trying bullying tactics to reinforce the voluntary nature of the register despite the very questionable results one year after it was set up," Luxembourg MEP Claude Turmes, vice-president of the Greens/EFA group, said: "Lobbying is not any old business like selling bread or cars: it involves getting paid to influence legislation that affects each and every citizen in the EU and many outside." 

Describing last week's proposal as "seriously flawed," the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU), a transparency NGO, stated that the blueprint "means EU citizens will have to wait longer for credible and meaningful lobbying transparency". 

Erik Wesselius of Corporate Europe Observatory, a member of ALTER-EU, said: "In May last year, the European Parliament's resolution called for a mandatory register for lobbyists, which requires disclosure of names of lobbyists and financial details. Now they have agreed to endorse a voluntary register which only names the minority of lobbyists who hold Parliamentary access passes and which contains very weak and misleading financial disclosure requirements." 

"Instead of finally allowing the public to get a clear picture about who is influencing decision-making in Brussels, Commissioner Kallas and MEPs seem to be settling for the lowest common denominator. The result is a compromise register which creates a false impression of transparency, while most of EU lobbying will continue outside of any public scrutiny," Wesselius concluded. 

Christine Pohl from Friends of the Earth Europe, another member of ALTER-EU, said last week: "The big Brussels law firms, think-tanks and many of the large corporations who are politically active in Brussels are in effect boycotting the register. The Commission sells the 1,340 registrations to date as a success, but only 538 of those organisations have an office in Brussels. In reality, at least 80 per cent of all Brussels-based lobbying organisations still have not registered." 

Dr. William Dinan of Spinwatch, also a member of ALTER-EU, added: "The vague requirements for disclosure of finances, clients, and lobbying activities undermine the promised transparency of the register". 

"The joint statement by Parliament and Commission promises to review the reporting provisions regarding lobbying finances and client disclosure. Those tasked with this review must ensure that the many loopholes are fixed so disclosure becomes meaningful to the public rather than simply convenient for lobbyists," he continued. 

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). 

  • 4-7 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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