Not enough law firms or think-tanks have signed up to the European Commission’s lobby register, Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas said on Tuesday (8 September).
The EU executive is currently reviewing the success of its voluntary lobby registration scheme, launched by Commissioner Kallas in June 2008 as part of his transparency initiative.
“Coverage is insufficient in certain categories. Some major think-tanks and lobbying law firms are effectively boycotting the register,” Kallas told a European Parliament hearing.
“With regard to think-tanks, I remain convinced that their inclusion in the target group was justified […] I’ve made it clear that the register is for ‘interest representatives’, and that joining […] does not label think-tanks as lobbyists,” he said.
Justifying his decision, the commissioner explained that the events programmes of many think-tanks are “directly linked to who the corporate funding sources are”. “Some even advertise on their websites that corporate sponsors are ensured privileged access to key decision-makers, including commissioners and EC officials of all ranks,” he said.
Meanwhile, Kallas echoed his long-held view that by neglecting to join the register, “law firms retain unfair competitive advantages vis-à-vis public affairs consultancies in attracting clients that wish their lobbying to remain secret”.
A law firm representative responded by explaining that “we are not doing this on some kind of whim in competition with PA firms”. “We are bound to professional secrecy by constitutional and criminal law in the member states, which often forbids such disclosure,” he said.
Rejecting this argument entirely, Kallas insisted it was possible for law firms to separate lobbying from their other activities. “I’m seeing law firms competing with PA consultancies on the basis that they’re not bound by transparency […] I’m not on a witch-hunt, but if law firms enter the lobby scene, they need to take part [in the register] like the others.”
Financial disclosure ‘confusion’
The EU executive will also revise the scheme’s financial disclosure requirements to address the “ambiguities” of the present system, the commissioner announced.
Asked what other changes should be expected, Kallas said the focus would be on addressing “confusing” areas like financial disclosure, where the current system of giving consultancies a choice between absolutes and percentage bands had led to “unintended unequal treatment, requiring the smaller firms to reveal more than the larger ones”.
At present, registrants are required to disclose the value of work carried out on behalf of each of their clients, either in bands of €50,000 or as a percentage of total revenue (brackets of 10%).
“We need to look at making financial disclosure more precise and reliable. To have both percentages and brackets is confusing, so we need some fine-tuning, but which direction we’ll go remains to be seen. We’re consulting on a better solution, but it’s too early to talk about numbers,” Kallas said.
He did admit, however, that the percentage option had created “a certain ambiguity,” while the brackets for absolute sums could be made “more illustrative”.
The former Estonian prime minister also acknowledged “confusion” about whether financial declarations should include only ‘direct’ lobbying – which he described as “face-to-face contact with a representative of an EU institution” – or feature ‘indirect’ lobbying too, meaning that conducted via “think-tanks, trade associations, platforms, forums and campaigns”.
“We need to clarify this,” he said.
Kallas refused to rule out moving towards a mandatory scheme in future, but said he was “quite satisfied and ready to develop the present register further at the moment”.
The commissioner is also aware that there is little chance of the Council agreeing to join the scheme should it ever go mandatory. Indeed, Jonas Högström, an official at the Swedish Permanent Representation to the EU, admitted that “a mandatory register would be legally and constitutionally very problematic for most member states”.
The Swedish EU Presidency has invited the European Commission to present to the Council its experiences following the first year of its voluntary lobby register on 25 September.