Survey: Lobbyists reluctant to sign up to register

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Large numbers of businesses, consultancies and industry federations do not intend to sign up to the European Commission’s lobbyists register, found a EURACTIV survey presented at a conference last Wednesday (4 March). But a majority of respondents are supportive of transparency in principle.

55% of federations, 53% of consultancies and 41% of businesses do not intend to participate at all in the voluntary lobbyists register launched by the Commission last June (EURACTIV 24/06/08), according to the survey, presented at the eighth annual conference of the European Centre for Public Affairs (ECPA) in Brussels. 

Nevertheless, the majority of federations, consultancies and businesses are appreciative of the EU’s transparency initiative (ETI) and support transparency in general, while small numbers of all three categories said they will likely join in 2009 or 2010. 

Corporate respondents have been quicker to sign up to the register than consultancies and federations, according to the limited survey sample. Over half (55%) of corporate respondents have already joined, while consultancies (33%) and federations (17%) have been slightly slower off the mark.  

One industry insider, who did not wish to be named, suggested this shows that the corporate world may consider registration necessary to maintain reputations. 

Public affairs practitioners would like to see further clarification of a number of issues related to the register launched by the European Commission last year, including financial disclosure and the distinction between direct lobbying and other advocacy activities. 

Professionals are also equally divided as to the ETI’s future, with a majority of corporate respondents (27%) expecting the scheme to become mandatory but remain similar. 34% of federations expect the register to remain voluntary, while 28% of consultancies expect it to be simplified.

Commenting on the survey’s findings, a prominent Brussels lobbyist suggested that the EU executive “could do more to communicate with the public affairs community to encourage registration”. 

Other factors identified by the survey as preventing consultancies from registering include the excessive amount of data required (30%) or risks that such data will be misused (19%). 

The majority of organisations spend over half of their EU public affairs budgets in Brussels, but less than a quarter of this goes on direct lobbying. 

The Commission plans to evaluate the success of the lobby register’s first year this summer. 

The findings of EURACTIV's transparency survey show that "the Commission needs to enhance its communication on the ETI and address the problems identified before reviewing its scope," according to a prominent Brussels lobbyist, who did not wish to be named.

Tom Spencer, executive director of the European Centre for Public Affairs (ECPA), said "transparency is desirable," but stressed the need to establish an "optimal level of transparency". "Too much formal transparency means decision-making will retreat to the coffee bars". 

Describing how all EU institutions have been forced to enlarge their decision-making bodies in response to enlargement, European Economic and Social Committee Secretary General Martin Westlake declared: "We've responded to enlargement by enlarging." As a result, "it has become necessary to evolve informal decision-making procedures," he said, suggesting that the changed dynamics may result in less transparency. 

Presenting the survey, EURACTIV Publisher Christophe Leclercq said: "I expect registration to become best practice in Brussels public affairs circles, as is the case in Washington. Our survey reveals strong support for transparency, but identifies many issues that must still be resolved. To avoid triggering a huge and lengthy process, my recommendation would be to fine-tune the ETI by merging it with the European Parliament's register."

Public affairs professionals from across the EU gathered in Brussels on 4 March for the eighth annual conference of the European Centre for Public Affairs (ECPA), entitled 'Crises, Cycles and Change: Public Affairs in a Downturn'. 

EURACTIV launched its survey on the EU's transparency initiative at the conference. Over 300 stakeholders from federations, consultancies and industry responded in October and November 2008. 

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). As of 9 March 2009, 1,128 bodies had signed up. 

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 individuals 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 in the summer. 

German Socialist MEP Jo Leinen recently expressed optimism that a common register between the Parliament and the Commission could be drawn up, but warned that it may have to wait until after the European elections in June (EURACTIV 28/01/09). 

But other 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). 

  • 17 March 2009: EURACTIV workshop on trends in effective management for interest groups.
  • March-April 2009: EURACTIV to present survey on public affairs trends to meetings of EPACA (March; European Public Affairs Consultancies' Association) and SEAP (April; Society of European Affairs Professionals).
  • June 2009: Elections to the European Parliament.
  • June 2009: EURACTIV workshop on trends in public affairs.
  • Summer 2009: Commission to review success of its voluntary lobbyists register. 

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