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.