Lobbyists group urges caution over registration

The Society of European Affairs Professionals (SEAP) reiterated its commitment to promoting transparency in EU lobbying and a voluntary registry, but highlighted a number of “potential pitfalls” that the group wishes the Commission to avoid.  

The Commission Communication ‘Follow-up to the Green Paper European Transparency initiative’ set out a system of voluntary registration for lobbyists, which should be put in place by Spring 2008.  

Those who register will be subject to rules on disclosure that would require information about their main sources of funding, broken down by category, and disclosure of any clients’ names.

Even if the fees paid by lobbyists’ clients would not have to be disclosed, other aspects of disclosure of funding could be problematic and contrary to the well-established principles of a competitive marketplace, says SEAP.

The register of public affairs outfits, business groupings, non-governmental organisations and law firms would come into effect in 2008 – those who do not register would only have their views on Commission proposals taken into account as individuals.

Commissioner Kallas has said that the city’s 15,000 lobbyists would sign up to preserve their reputation, and added that he would could call for mandatory registration if a review in 2009 found the voluntary system wanting, but warned that this would be legally complex.

Companies and trade associations might, for instance, have to give details of the money they direct towards lobbying activities, including salaries of employees, the group warns.  While the Commission may be willing to accept companies giving rough figures, a company's own internal controls will often not allow such information to be made public in such an inaccurate fashion, it says.  Compiling exact financial information could thus prove to be a heavy administrative task.  

Under the system responses sent by an unregistered organisation will be treated as that of the individual submitting the response, rather than of the organisation s/he represents.  This, says SEAP, makes for an inequitable, uneven 'playing field', and could compromise the effectiveness of Commission consultations, if the analysis of responses fails to reflect the interests that are actually represented.  It also has, according to the group, the potential to create less transparency, rather than more, in relation to EU policymaking. 

SEAP President, Lyn Trytsman-Gray said: "We agree with the Commission that any system of registration for lobbyists should be voluntary.  However, the levels of disclosure required, particularly financial disclosure, should not be impossible to meet or overly burdensome for potential registrants.  They should not act as a disincentive to registration.  The Commission must remember the contractual, ethical or legal constraints that our members are under in the various member states. We call on the Commission to carry out a feasibility study and impact assessment and to engage fully with stakeholders in developing its registration system." 

Some MEPs and pressure groups were disappointed that the first controls on the fast-growing lobbying scene in the EU capital fell short of the US-style mandatory disclosure.

Christine Pohl from Friends of the Earth said: "The whole system depends on an appeal to the lobbyists' conscience or their fear of damaging their reputation. But those that want to stay in the shadows will never register or disclose financial information on a voluntary basis."
"The approach lacks teeth," said Green MEP Claude Turmes.

The Commission's follow-up to the Green Paper on a  'European Transparency Initiative' was published on 21 March, announcing the EU executive's intention to create a voluntary register for EU lobbyists.  

This would require disclosure of members, clients, funding details and adherence to a code of conduct.  SEAP has recently agreed a set of core principles with other lobbyist organisations, which it hopes will provide the basis for this code - a code that would preferably be developed by the profession itself. 

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