Single EU lobbyists’ register faces further delays

MEP Jo Leinin [Europa.eu]

German Socialist MEP Jo Leinen yesterday (27 January) expressed optimism that a lobbyists’ register common to the European Parliament and the EU executive can be drawn up. But it may have to wait until after European elections in June, he cautioned.

Leinen, who deals with transparency issues on behalf of the European Parliament, told journalists in Brussels yesterday that he wants “a common code of conduct” between the two institutions to be established by the end of April, expressing hope that a common register would be made available online “as soon as possible” after that date. 

In accordance with a Parliament report adopted last May (EURACTIV 09/05/08), an inter-institutional working group (IIWG) was established in December to examine the feasibility of establishing a common register between the EU assembly and the European Commission. As of yet, the Council has not taken part in these discussions. 

The first meeting between representatives of the Parliament and the EU executive took place in Strasbourg last December, with another scheduled for February. In December, negotiators agreed to develop a common code of conduct as a first step towards drawing up a “one-stop shop” register for both institutions. 

‘Differences remain’ between Commission, Parliament

“Both institutions’ services are now comparing [one another’s] codes of conduct,” Leinen said. But he admitted that establishing a common register before the dissolution of the current Parliament will be difficult because “differences remain”. 

“We are confident that the approaches taken by the Commission and the Parliament can be made compatible,” said Leinen, his German EEP-ED colleague Ingo Friedrich, Parliament Vice-President Diana Wallis (ALDE, UK) and Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas in a joint statement released after the group’s first meeting on 16 December. 

“There are some differences, reflecting our different institutional roles, but we should be able to accommodate each other […] to offer the lobby profession a ‘one-stop shop’ with no red tape, and give the general public a single entry point to a comprehensive overview of the role of lobbyists in the EU decision-making bodies,” the statement continued. 

Czech Presidency ‘promised’ to address issue

As for the Council, “the Czech [EU] Presidency has promised to work on the register issue,” Leinen told yesterday’s conference on lobbying transparency, organised by ALTER-EU, a transparency group. But “the Council is struggling to define whether it is part of the deal or whether it is special and should remain outside,” the MEP said. 

The Council represents governments and many of its employees are seconded from national posts at home, making their inclusion in an EU register more difficult. 

Nevertheless, “they are part of the [EU decision-making] structure” and need to be brought on board,” according to Leinen. “A good place to start would be including Brussels-based employees of the Council and member states’ permanent representations in an EU register,” he said. 

Towards sanctions?

Asked yesterday about possible sanctions for non-compliance with the rules of a common register, Leinen suggested that those who fail to abide by the terms of the code could be thrown out of the register and their name made public. 

Indeed, the European Commission recently decided to suspend GPlus, a prominent Brussels consultancy, from its voluntary lobbyists’ register for failing to disclose the identities of all its clients (EURACTIV 26/01/09). 

“The GPlus affair shows that sanctioning is starting to work,” argued Leinen. But a common register between all three institutions would need to be put on firm legal ground to make sure it is enforced, “because otherwise all you can do is throw people out and make that public,” he warned. 

The IIWG will hold a second meeting next month. 

"Transparency is a big item on the EU agenda and we must improve it a lot," according to German Socialist MEP Jo Leinen, a member of the inter-institutional working group in charge of developing a common register. 

"I'm optimistic about getting a fully-fledged transparency initiative because the public demands it and it is needed to help build the public's trust in Brussels. [New US President Barack] Obama has shown that the US is far ahead of Europe in such issues, like access to documents," Leinen continued (see EURACTIV 14/11/08 for more information on Obama's new rules). 

The German MEP further remarked: "The transparency initiative is a new step in EU culture. We will be pushing to make sure that there is some constructive progress on an inter-institutional agreement to report before the European Parliament elections. The Parliament is positive about transparency, the Commission is moving, but it is not yet clear whether the Council is even concerned about it. Everyone is at different stages of evolution." 

Lack of Council involvement 'not a problem'

"It is not a big problem that the Council is not involved in the inter-institutional agreement for now, because very few firms only lobby the Council," said Erik Wesselius of Corporate Europe Observatory, a lobby watchdog. "They also lobby the Parliament and the Commission, and those institutions define lobbying as 'lobbying the EU institutions'," Wesselius, who sits on the steering committee of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (
ALTER-EU
), explained. 

"We met today as representatives of the Commission and the Parliament to consider the implications of a common register for all lobbyists engaged in the EU political decision-making processes. The Council was also invited to attend […] The group will be asked to complete its work and report to the political level as soon as possible," said Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim KallasEuropean Parliament Vice-President Diana Wallis (ALDE, UK), and German MEPs Ingo Friedrich (EPP-ED) and Jo Leinen (PES) in a statement released after the IIWG's first meeting on 16 December 2008. 

"Items to be discussed will include the objectives of a common framework for the activities of lobbyists, its main features – such as the coverage, nature and scope of the information disclosed, a code of conduct, complaints and sanctions – possible specifications for a 'one-stop shop', as well as the technical and financial implications of this single register," the statement continued. 

Asked about the differences between the EU and US sanction systems, Shelia Krumholz, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Centre for Responsive Politics, said US system is tougher as it carries the threat of fines and jail time. 

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 in 2005 (see EURACTIV LinksDossier). 

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. 

On 8 May 2008, the European Parliament called for the creation of a mandatory public register common to all three institutions, providing for "full financial disclosure" and accompanied by a code of conduct, complete with a mechanism for expelling individual lobbyists who infringe its rules (EURACTIV 09/05/08). 

Commissioner Kallas has indeed suggested that the EU executive's register could serve as a "testing ground" for the feasibility of a register common to all EU institutions (EURACTIV 29/05/08), with a review expected next summer. 

But Brussels insiders believe it will take "a lot more time" before agreement on a common, mandatory register can be reached, speculating over a possible "broker’s role" for the Commission between the Parliament and a "reluctant" Council (EURACTIV 15/10/08). 

  • Feb. 2009: Next meeting of the inter-institutional working group. 
  • June 2009: Elections to the European Parliament. 

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