MEP: Excessive lobbying brings business ‘into disrepute’

Excessive lobbying of the EU institutions by businesses putting profit before moral values is giving industry a bad reputation, Romanian MEP Daniel Daianu told a conference last week, claiming that “honesty and transparency are needed more than ever”.

“The people who pop up in the corridors of the European Parliament represent big business, not citizens,” Romanian MEP Daniel Daianu (ALDE) told a Brussels conference on lobbying ethics on 5 November. But “the business world’s sole obligation is to shareholders and making a profit at the expense of moral values,” he stressed, lamenting the disruptive influence this had on the transparency drive. 

Business reserves right to lobby… 

In response, business representatives were quick to defend their right to participate in the EU policymaking process. “All companies should have the right to express their opinion on issues that affect them,” argued Miguel Veiga-Pestana, vice-president of global external affairs at Unilever.

Others believe there is a distinction to be made between the ethics of lobbying and the European Commission’s transparency drive. Burson Marsteller CEO Robert Mack said: “The European Transparency Initiative (ETI) is not about ethical lobbying. It is about disclosure of information. These are two separate things.” 

Lobbyists last week expressed concern that the European Commission was not doing enough to promote participation in the voluntary register launched by Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas last June (EURACTIV 07/11/08). They said they would sign up to the register if the Commission provided clearer guidelines for participation, but argued that the EU executive needed to be more proactive in encouraging them to take part.

…and laments ‘unclear’ EU guidelines 

Business is concerned that the Commission’s failure to provide clear guidelines for inclusion in the register is negatively impacting upon the quality of the information it contains, according to Mack. 

“There are huge differences between the information in the register because the rules are non-specific,” he said, complaining that the current system “puts the burden on participating associations to provide their own guidelines”. 

Mack believes that a law-based system is essential to ensure that the rules are properly enforced. “It is premature to talk about enforcement before we have clear guidance on what information we must include when registering,” he said. 

Nevertheless, businesses understand the importance of participating in the register, argued Veiga-Pestana, insisting that the EU cannot achieve its goals without industry’s contribution to the legislative process. “Failure by companies to participate in the legislative process would produce bad law,” he said. 

Towards a uniform EU code? 

EU Ombudsman P. Nikiforos Diamandouros wants a uniform code of administrative good behaviour, based on best practice, to be established for staff at all EU institutions and agencies. “Officials at the EU institutions must adhere to a code of good administrative behaviour,” he said. 

Diamandouros said it was not within his mandate to investigate lobbyists themselves because they belong to the private sector, but he could investigate “the lobbied” within the EU institutions. “My role is to supervise the behaviour of the decision-makers, not the decision-shapers,” he added. 

For their part, lobbyists themselves believe the profession is in a position to regulate itself. “The ETI should be limited to disclosure. Industry should set its own ethics codes,” said a former head of the Society of European Affairs Professionals (SEAP). 

“The codes of conduct developed by SEAP and EPACA (European Public Affairs Consultancies Association) are good enough and we do not need any more,” Mack noted. 

EU Ombudsman P. Nikiforos Diamandouros described transparency as "a relatively novel feature of the EU architecture". "The European public administration is moving in the direction of increased transparency, but needs to be helped and prodded to go further," he said. 

"The financial crisis has emphasised the vital role of moral values and ethics" in preventing such situations in the future," argues Romanian MEP Daniel Daianu (ALDE), calling for "global ethics standards" to be established. "Lobbying is part and parcel of democracy, but there is a shady side to it." 

"There is a major discrepancy between what companies practise and what they preach," Daianu lamented, claiming that "a sense of shame and guilt" among the protagonists of the current turmoil was entirely lacking. 

"I have a range of influencers coming to me, not just big business," said Simon Stannard, an official in the agriculture and fisheries department of the UK Permanent Representation to the EU. "It is an open-door policy. Businesses are more aware that the opportunity to come is there, but they are not being favoured." 

Burson Marsteller CEO Robert Mack insists that "there is no point distinguishing between ethical and unethical lobbying, because all lobbying should be ethical". "There is no problem with lobbying if you do it transparently," he continued, saying: "I have no problem with listing our clients in the register. We are already disclosing [such information] to the people we are working with in the institutions." 

On the issue of a code of conduct for lobbyists, Mack said "the European Commission is essentially leaving the guidelines to the entire lobbying community, so there will be lots of very different sets". 

Miguel Veiga-Pestana, vice-president of global external affairs at Unilever, said "the [Commission's lobbyists] register will become more specific and concrete over time as more people sign up". "People are already taking note of the register and businesses are asking each other what they are doing to join it." 

Comparing the EU scheme with the US Lobbying Disclosure Act, Veiga-Pestana said the US system was "more structured and formal for tax reasons, because some lobbying acts are tax-deductible and others are not". "The EU is still finding its way and its laws are not like that, so there are discrepancies." 

But Olivier Houdeman of transparency NGO Corporate Europe Observatory disagreed. "The role of lobbying in the EU and the US is very similar. It is a mistake to think that the EU is somehow more ethical than the US and will self-regulate itself without a mandatory register." 

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 by Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas in 2005. 

European civil society, transparency and consumer groups recently 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). 

Commission representatives recently said the EU executive was "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". 

  • Summer 2009: Commission to evaluate success of voluntary lobbyists register. 
  • Society of European Affairs Professionals (SEAP):Homepage
  • European Public Affairs Consultancies Association (EPACA):Homepage
  • Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO):Homepage

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