Lobbyists: Commission ‘not doing enough’ to promote register

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The European Commission must be more proactive in promoting its lobbyists’ register if it is to be a success, said representatives of the profession at a recent conference on the issue. They said they would sign up if the EU executive provided clearer guidelines for participation.

“We only have to look at [US President-elect] Barack Obama’s voter registration strategy, which led to such an overwhelming result, to illustrate how important it is to promote registration of any sort,” argued Lyn Trytsman-Gray, president of the Society of European Affairs Professionals (SEAP), addressing a Brussels conference on ethics in lobbying on 5 November. 

“It is now time for the Commission to put its money where its mouth is, follow Obama’s example and get out on the campaign trail to promote its cause and encourage [lobbyists] to register,” Trytsman-Gray continued. 

For its part, the Commission insists that it is still too early to assess the register’s success, preferring to wait until next summer and the end of the one-year ‘pilot phase’ before assessing whether registration should become mandatory.

But European civil society, transparency and consumer groups last week unveiled guidelines for a new, mandatory register to replace the EU executive’s “flawed” model, which they said was “weak and unclear” (EURACTIV 31/10/08).

As of today, 513 organisations had signed up to the register. 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 in the past.  

Responding to concerns that too few organisations are participating in the register, Kristian Schmidt, deputy head of cabinet for Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas, warned against comparing “the estimated number of 15,000 lobbyists who are individuals with the 500 or so organisations that are currently registered”. 

Schmidt believes the scheme has made “a very good start,” but admitted that the Commission had “a lot of homework to do”. “The glass remains half-empty,” he said, acknowledging that more needed to be done to encourage law firms and consultancies to register as they compete with public affairs firms. “Commissioner Kallas may make a more targeted effort.” 

Rejecting concerns that confidentiality issues would prevent law firms from signing up, Kallas’s cabinet member said respecting the principle of client confidentiality within the register was “absolutely doable”. 

Towards a common register? 

Meanwhile, German MEP Ingo Friedrich (EPP-ED), rapporteur on the lobbying file in European Parliament, was not optimistic about the chances of the Parliament, Commission and Council reaching agreement on a common register – as called for by a report adopted by parliamentarians in April (EURACTIV 03/04/08) – due to “fundamental differences” between the requirements of the three institutions. 

“I am not convinced that we will have a common register as the ideas and goals of the Parliament and Commission are too different,” he said, adding: “I have no indication that the Council is interested in a common register”. 

Instead, Friedrich proposed a two-register system whereby separate schemes would be linked as “a worst-case scenario that we could live with while continuing to aim for a joint one”. 

The Commission, however, insists that it remains “an active promoter” of a common register with the other institutions, while the mandatory option “remains on the table”. “[A common register] is quite rational as citizens do not distinguish between the EU institutions” said Gerard Legris, head of unit for transparency and relations with stakeholders and external organisations in the Commission’s secretariat-general. “As soon as the Parliament is ready to sit down with us on a common register, we will be there,” he explained. “We are waiting for the Parliament to launch the practical process.” 

Nevertheless, Legris acknowledged that getting the Council to sign up to a joint register, which is often represented by experts seconded from national capitals, would be difficult. 

“Governments and coalitions of governments in the Council that are trying to influence policymaking are clearly lobbyists, as are people trying to influence EU presidencies,” he admitted. “But we didn’t want the register to be an administrative directive,” he said. 

Asked whether he envisaged Commission participation in a common mandatory register, Legris said that the EU executive would assess who was “interacting with its services on the basis of the current register” next summer before deciding whether a mandatory approach was required. 

But some commentators are sceptical as to the likelihood of a common, mandatory register between the Commission, the Parliament and the Council ever seeing the light of day. “Don’t expect the three institutions to come together on this in a sensitive election season,” said Tom Spencer, visiting professor of public affairs at Brunel University. 

"As a citizen I have learnt a lot from the register. The point is that we address the issue of public trust relating to the way decisions are taken in Brussels," said Kristian Schmidt, deputy head of cabinet for EU Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas. "The European Commission is considering writing to unregistered consultancies to remind them to participate," he added. 

"We will do our bit to make the voluntary register work first, but it is not locked in its current form," continued Schmidt. "The Commission is open to a joint register with Parliament and the Council, including the names of individuals," but it was now up to the other institutions to come forward with proposals on how to do so, he said. 

On financial disclosure, Schmidt said the idea was not to launch "a crusade against lobbyists," but the forthcoming "explosion" of lobbying in Brussels meant that it was "important to break the mental barrier and get financial disclosure now". 

On the issue of including lobbyists' names in the register, he said: "You don't need names to record the intensity of lobbying activity, but you do need them in a joint register with the Parliament [which requires individual names so lobbyists can be granted access badges to its premises]". 

Asked what the status of the register would be after the current Commission's mandate ended in autumn 2009, Gerard Legris, head of unit for transparency and relations with stakeholders and external organisations in the EU executive's secretariat-general, said there was "no doubt about continuity in the Commission" because "the civil servants will continue with their work post-Kallas". 

More generally, Legris lamented citizens' "tendency to view lobbying as a negative influence rather than constructive interaction that allows the Commission to make better informed decisions". 

"There are different rules on lobbying at the national and EU levels. The Parliament only focuses on the EU level, where the difference between being influenced and getting informed is a fine line," said German MEP Ingo Friedrich (EPP-ED), rapporteur on the lobbying file in European Parliament. 

Hans Glatz, who works on EU affairs at DaimlerChrysler, called on the EU executive to offer lobbyists positive incentives to sign up to the register, like access badges to its premises, rather than stress the negative consequences of not registering. 

But the European Commission's Schmidt responded: "We don't think we can give out access badges," citing "security issues". "We don't want to create a mass of accredited lobbyists with privileged access. It should be possible to lobby without being a member," he continued. 

Jean-Claude Lahaut, executive director of European chemicals industry association Cefic, said it was "very difficult" for him to express Cefic's lobbying outlay as a percentage of total expenditure. "We lobby all three institutions, while our members [national associations] also do so separately". 

Lahaut said Cefic would have no problem with registering the names of individual lobbyists. But he warned: "Decision-making is so complex that it is difficult to distinguish between lobbying and guidance on implementing legislation. We provide a service to companies." 

"We shouldn't be tied down to the Commission's original proposal. It is more important to focus on openness of contact rather than financial disclosure," said Tom Spencer, visiting professor of public affairs at Brunel University

"The European Commission must put stronger emphasis on marketing its own initiative instead of expecting others, like SEAP, to take over this responsibility," said Lyn Trytsman-Gray, president of the Society of European Affairs Professionals (SEAP). 

The European Commission launched a voluntary register for lobbyists seeking to influence its policymaking last June (EURACTIV 24/06/08) as part of the wider transparency initiative launched by Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas in 2005. 

The Commission register currently lists the names of organisations rather than the names of individuals or the clients they represent. It requires consultancies and law firms participating in the register to disclose total revenue related to lobbying the EU institutions, citing either absolute amounts (brackets of €50,000) or percentages (brackets of 10%). 

Corporate 'in-house' lobbyists and trade associations must estimate their costs associated with the direct lobbying of all the EU institutions, while NGOs and think-tanks must publish their organisations' overall budget and indicate their main sources of funding. 

Kallas had suggested that the Commission's register could serve as a "testing ground" for the feasibility of a register common to all EU institutions (EURACTIV 29/05/08), with a review expected next summer. 

  • Summer 2009: Commission to evaluate success of voluntary lobbyists register. 

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