PA firms hail EU lobby transparency ‘success’

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Brussels-based public affairs consultancies are hailing the European Commission’s lobbyists register as a success as the scheme approaches its first birthday. But transparency groups still believe a mandatory system would be more effective.

Describing the register as an “overall success” so far, EPACA, the European Public Affairs Consultancies’ Association, said “the total number of signatory organisations requires only a small multiplier in terms of staff to reach the number of claimed lobbyists in Brussels”. 

The register, launched by Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas last summer and which over 1,500 entities have joined, will be reviewed in July. 

The deadline for stakeholders wishing to submit contributions to the Commission’s review expired on 15 June. 

Commission ‘should focus on enforcement’ 

With the number of signatories “continuing to grow,” EPACA believes “the focus of the Commission should now be on enforcement to ensure a level playing field and on making this register work better”. 

The Society of European Affairs Professionals (SEAP), meanwhile, warned against relying too heavily on the sign-up rate as a measure of the scheme’s success. 

“While the number of registrants might be used as a measure of success, the real measure of success should also be qualitative,” it said

Earlier this month, the EU executive hinted at possible changes to the scheme. “No doubt after a year, there will be a need for some fine-tuning, and I think the Commission will do that in very clear terms,” said Vice-President Kallas’s spokesperson, Valérie Rampi (EURACTIV 08/06/09). 

“There’s a lot of room for improvement, no doubt, but we’ll see how that plays out by the end of the month. Without doubt, there will be changes to make,” Rampi added. 

But EPACA warned that if the Commission were to go any further, particularly on financial disclosure, then the scheme would have to become mandatory. 

“Any additional requirements for disclosure of commercially-sensitive information beyond those already incorporated in the register could only be implemented fairly and effectively by a mandatory system,” the consultancy association said. 

The European Commission sees think-tanks and law firms as interest representatives and thus expects them to sign up to the scheme (EURACTIV 27/04/09). But both groups have been slow to do so. 

‘Law firms should register’ 

In EPACA’s view, these organisations should join the register, as they “legitimately engage in interest representation, and are directly competing for funds and client work” with consultancies. “If they subscribe to no transparency requirements, this is evidently an unfair distortion of the market,” the association argued. 

Law firms themselves are adamant that such disclosure requirements cannot apply to them. 

“Binding ethical rules on professional secrecy in many European countries prohibit the disclosure of clients’ names and/or financial information by the lawyer, even when a lawyer is only exercising a lobbying activity,” according to the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe. 

Others are calling on the Commission to provide a more precise definition of what constitutes lobbying. 

To ensure the term ‘interest representatives’ is understood as “contributions to policy work,” the American Chamber of Commerce to the EU is recommending that “all sales, marketing and advertising activities and expenses […] be explicitly excluded from registration” when not aimed at influencing legislation. 

Voluntary approach ‘not working’ 

Lobby transparency groups, meanwhile, are convinced that the voluntary approach embraced by the EU executive is not working. 

“Certain types of lobbyists are still missing,” lamented Transparency International (TI), an NGO. “Although the Commission has stated rightly and clearly that it takes a broad view of lobbying, including public affairs consultancies, corporate lobbyists, law firms, NGOs and think-tanks, many major players from all categories are missing,” according to TI. 

The NGO argues that the even before developing a joint mandatory scheme with the Parliament, the Commission could make its register “quasi-mandatory” by forcing lobby entities that interact with its officials in meetings, consultations and events to sign up. 

Earlier this month, the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) argued that a lack of clear guidelines for inclusion means that “the register is increasingly cluttered by associations that play no role in lobbying the EU,” alleging that think-tanks and law firms were “boycotting” the scheme (EURACTIV 08/06/09). 

TI and ALTER-EU both argue that the financial disclosure requirements of the current register are too broad, and call for more detailed information – in absolute figures and ranges of 10,000 euros – to be included. 

The Commission will conduct its review of the register’s first year in July. 

Announcing its readiness to "continue working constructively" with the European Commission and the European Parliament, the European Public Affairs Consultancies' Association (EPACA) welcomed the establishment of a "joint portal between the Commission register and the Parliament list of accredited lobbyists". 

The joint scheme "recognises the differences in the needs of the different institutions, while facilitating transparency concerning both organisations and individuals, without applying a bureaucratic straitjacket," EPACA said. 

Regarding the number of organisations registered to date, "we note that it will be difficult to assess what proportion of the purported thousands of lobbyists this actually represents and are thus covered by the register," declared the Society of European Affairs Professionals (SEAP). 

SEAP supports the development of a joint registration scheme between the EU executive and the European Parliament, "if only for the sake of procedural simplicity". 

But its members are concerned that as the two institutions differ in their approach, with the Parliament's individual-based scheme focusing on access to its premises and the Commission register dealing with organisations and the disclosure of more information. 

"We are concerned to ensure that moves to integrate them do not simply complicate the two individual processes," SEAP said. 

Echoing comments made by many registrants regarding the technicalities of the scheme, the American Chamber of Commerce to the EU (AmCham EU) called on the Commission to allow signatories to return to previous steps of the registration process and amend information, and allow them to save and print draft versions of the form for private circulation prior to making the final submission. 

AmCham EU also encouraged the Commission to "clarify that a registration made by any European-affiliated company is considered a registration of the whole entity," cautioning that "due to the diverse and complex nature of different companies, a certain degree of flexibility is required". 

Calling for clarification of the EU executive's definition of lobbying, AmCham EU asked for "guidance on whether or not time for preparation of meetings and time spent at trade associations need to be included". 

"Lawyers and law firms have serious difficulties with aspects of the European Commission's register," said the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE). 

"The legal profession is already highly-regulated and bound by strict ethical standards, backed up with sanctions. As such, client confidentiality is a fundamental rule, designed to safeguard the rights of the individual, that can be dispensed with only in restricted circumstances," CCBE wrote in a letter addressed to Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas, responsible for transparency. 

"The CCBE looks forward to improvements that will take into account those serious concerns regarding the public disclosure of information related to clients’ names and financial data," its statement continued. 

CCBE suggested using the "legislative footprint" technique instead, whereby any report or proposal would list the stakeholders and parties involved in its development. 

"Transparent EU lobbying requires more than just a set of rules and regulations. It is equally essential to create a spirit and an understanding of the importance of transparency and openness among all stakeholders involved," according to Transparency International, an NGO. 

"A mandatory register is better suited to achieving a high number of registered entities while ensuring data accuracy and reliability. Making registration a requirement for entities that carry out lobbying activities should thus remain the mid- to long-term aim of the EU institutions," TI said. 

The NGO lamented that the Commission register does not include information on which individual pieces of legislation lobby entities are aiming their activities at. In TI’s view, to understand the impact of lobbying on EU decision-making, "it is necessary to have this information available". 

In a letter addressed to Commissioner Kallas, the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) said "we regret that so far, [the Commission] has not taken on board our practical suggestions on how to set up an effective transparency register, but we remain hopeful that, following your review, there will be new opportunities to discuss with you how to advance lobbying transparency in the EU". 

The European Commission invited stakeholders to submit proposals for a reformed lobby register by 15 June ahead of an internal review, to take place in July. 

The register, launched by Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas last summer (EURACTIV 24/06/08), will celebrate its first birthday on 23 June. 

The scheme is designed to help citizens identify the lobbyists who seek to influence EU policymaking, and is part of a wider transparency initiative launched by Commissioner Kallas in 2005 (see EURACTIV LinksDossier). 

Meanwhile in April 2009, the EU executive and the European Parliament agreed common guidelines and a code of conduct for creating a single lobby register for the two institutions (EURACTIV 23/04/09). 

A recent EURACTIV survey found that most industry federations and their members agree that the ability to influence EU policy by lobbying is federations' biggest added value for business (EURACTIV 08/04/09). 

Another found that a majority of businesses, consultancies and industry federations are supportive of transparency in principle despite being slow to sign up to the Commission's register (EURACTIV 09/03/09). 

  • 23 June 2009: Commission register's first birthday. 
  • July: EU executive to publish assessment of lobby register's first year, including proposals for its future. 
  • July-End 2009: Swedish EU Presidency expected to prioritise lobby transparency. 

Fondation EURACTIV recently held a workshop on the future of the European Transparency Initiative in conjunction with EPACA

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