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.