Lobby transparency spotlight falls on think-tanks

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More think-tanks should sign up to the European Commission’s voluntary lobbyists register, Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas said last week (17 April), arguing that they play a clear role in the EU policymaking process. His claims were angrily refuted by think-tank representatives.

A search of the register reveals that 24 think-tanks have registered so far. But the European Policy Centre (EPC) is the only “major Brussels-based” one to have done so, the commissioner said. 

When the scheme was conceived, “we clearly said that lobbying means ‘all activities carried out with the objective of influencing the policy formulation and decision-making processes of the European institutions’,” Kallas told an EPC briefing on Friday. 

Register targets think-tanks… 

“We explicitly and deliberately included think-tanks in the target group,” the commissioner said. 

“The Commission’s role is to make an adequate evaluation of all spheres of public opinion, not just the well-organised few who make a lot of noise, like French fishermen,” he added. 

…because their role has changed 

Think-tanks can no longer be considered as “universities without teaching” as in the past, the Estonian argued. 

“They have no students and they are not subjected to the system of peer review that academia uses to promote diversity of thought and scientific rigor,” while “normal academic institutions are expected to conduct their research first and draw their conclusions second,” he explained (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on ‘The changing face of European think-tanks’ for further information). 

Citing an upcoming Friends of Europe debate featuring representatives of French oil company Total on the panel, Kallas said it was activities such as these which justified think-tanks’ inclusion in the register. 

MEPs and Commission development officials will also be there, and Total may see this as a lobby opportunity, he explained, thus proving that think-tanks play a “constructive role” in the policymaking process. 

Despite his comments, Kallas was quick to stress that “most think-tanks would never agree to write reports for corporate sponsors”. 

‘No intention of signing up’ 

Responding to the commissioner’s remarks, Friends of Europe Secretary-General Giles Merritt told EURACTIV that “we have no intention of signing up as lobbyists” and expressed surprise at Kallas’s comments. 

“I personally object to being called a lobbyist. I have been in Brussels for thirty years and I have never once lobbied. I don’t even know what a lobbyist does,” he said. 

“I was a bit surprised that [the Commission] went to another think-tank to single us out,” Merritt continued, adding that he had responded by writing to the EU executive to invite Commissioner Kallas and other think-tank representatives to publicly debate on the issue on Friends of Europe premises. 

The EU executive will review the success of its lobby register’s first year in the summer. 

The European Policy Centre (EPC) is the only major Brussels-based think-tank to have joined the EU executive's voluntary lobbyists' register, said European Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas, responsible for administration and anti-fraud. 

"Unfortunately, so far, among the major think-tanks in Brussels, there's only Hans Martens and the EPC to congratulate for joining the register," he said. 

"Think-tanks were on our radar screen from the beginning. But none of them reacted during the consultations. We were left to wonder what they were thinking," Kallas continued. 

EPC Chief Executive Hans Martens said the Brussels-based think-tank's decision to sign up to the register had not been easy. "We don't think we're a lobby organisation, but didn't want people to wonder what we have to hide," he said. 

Expressing his surprise at being singled out by Commissioner Kallas on Friday, Friends of Europe Secretary-General Giles Merritt told EURACTIV he didn't think the lobbyists register had "much to do with us". "We have to send [the Commission] our accounts because we're part-funded by them anyway," he said. 

"We don't lobby on anyone's behalf. We organise open debates on certain issues, about which everyone can have their say. If our sponsors want to have a say, then that's fine. We will invite [other participants] who will oppose them. It's an open political debate," Merritt said. 

He added that he had always presumed that the EU executive's suggestion that think-tanks should sign up to the lobby register was no more than for the "banal reason" that they would need to do so to get an access badge to the European Parliament. 

Describing the issue of whether or not think-tanks should register as a "fair question", Centre for European Reform Director Charles Grant told EURACTIV: "To be frank, we have not yet had time to take a view on this, having only just seen Kallas's comments." 

"We will discuss this internally, talk to a few other think-tanks, and then take a view on what we should do," Grant added. 

Eberhard Rhein, a lecturer at the Mediterranean Academy for Diplomatic Studies, told EURACTIV: "I am definitely of the view that think tanks like the EPC should not be included in the register. They do not campaign for certain issues, let alone specific business interests at the European Parliament or Council." 

"Anyhow, this registration of [business] lobbies in whatever register will not prevent them from influencing legislation or decisions taken by the EU," Rhein continued, adding: "The USA introduced such a register more than fifty years ago, and there is not another country in the world where lobbies have a stronger or more detrimental influence on legislation." 

"It would be better for the Commission and Vice-President Kallas to realise that we need subtler methods than a register to combat the often pernicious influence of powerful interest groups," he concluded.

Stephen Boucher and Martine Royo, authors of a book entitled 'Les Think-tanks: Cerveaux de la Guerre des Idées', claim that think-tanks are at risk of turning into lobbyists, raising autonomy concerns related to the way in which they are funded. 

Some are in danger of falling into the trap of becoming "submarines of private interests," they write. 

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). 

The register features three main categories of lobbyists - professional consultancies and law firms, corporate lobbyists and trade associations, and NGOs and think-tanks – and the requirements for inclusion in the register vary for all three, particularly regarding financial disclosure. 

Consultancies and law firms are asked to provide a detailed breakdown of lobbying revenue in brackets of €50,000 or percentage brackets of 10%, while corporate 'in-house' lobbyists and trade associations must estimate their costs associated with the direct lobbying of all the EU institutions. 

NGOs and think-tanks must publish their overall budgets and indicate their main sources of funding. 

The number of think-tanks in Europe has more than quadrupled in recent years, and they have become more active and inventive at disseminating policy solutions to decision-makers, argue Stephen Boucher and Martine Royo in a book entitled 'Les Think-tanks: Cerveaux de la Guerre des Idées' (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on 'The changing face of European think-tanks'). 

A recent study by the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) estimates that there are 1,200 think-tanks in Europe, and asserts that there are over 5,000 in operation worldwide. 

  • June 2009: European Parliament elections. 
  • June 2009: Commission to review success of lobby register's first year. 
  • Oct. 2009: Official end of current Commission’s mandate. 

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