The European Commission sees think-tanks as interest representatives and thus expects them to sign up to its voluntary lobbyists register, Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas announced last week, responding to claims by a leading Brussels think-tank that it had “no intention of signing up as lobbyists”.
Indeed, the Commission took care to name its voluntary scheme “a register for ‘interest representatives’, not ‘lobbyists’,” wrote Vice-President Kallas in a letter dated 24 April, seen by EURACTIV and addressed to Giles Merritt, founder and secretary-general of the Friends of Europe think-tank.
Think-tanks are a ‘separate category’…
“A separate category has been created for ‘think-tanks’, setting them clearly apart from ‘public affairs professionals’ and direct corporate interest representation. By joining the register, you would therefore not classify yourselves as a lobbyist,” the commissioner wrote.
The debate over think-tanks’ inclusion in the register took a new twist last week after Kallas had called upon more think-tanks to join, arguing that they play a clear role in the EU policymaking process.
When the scheme was conceived, “we clearly said that lobbying means ‘all activities carried out with the objective of influencing the policy formulation and decision-making processes of the European institutions’,” Kallas told a European Policy Centre briefing on 17 April (EURACTIV 20/04/09).
He singled out an upcoming Friends of Europe debate featuring representatives of French oil company Total on the panel, saying it was activities such as these which justified think-tanks’ inclusion in the register.
Friends of Europe responded by writing to the commissioner inviting him to publicly debate the issue.
In his letter, also seen by EURACTIV, Mr Merritt mentioned Dieter Frisch, a founding member of Transparency International and a former Commission director-general, as a possible member of the panel alongside think-tank representatives, like Onno Ruding of the Centre for European Policy Studies or Pierre Defraigne, executive director of Madariaga.
Indeed, Merritt told EURACTIV that he didn’t think the lobbyists register had “much to do with us” because “we don’t lobby on anyone’s behalf”.
“We organise open debates on certain issues, about which everyone can have their say,” he explained.
…but are ‘interest representatives’ nontheless
However, in his reply, Kallas disputed this assessment.
“In fact, twenty-five ‘think-tanks’ have so far joined the register, and they classify themselves as ‘independent’ too,” Kallas told Mr Merritt.
“It would surprise me somewhat if you would equally object to the qualification of ‘Friends of Europe’ as an ‘interest representative’, considering the claim on your own website that paid membership of Friends of Europe offers ‘maximum visibility’ and ‘a genuine opportunity to have a stake in the EU’s future direction’,” he wrote.
The commissioner further declared that “such interest representation must be captured for the register to be taken seriously,” citing a EURACTIV survey published earlier this month which found that 75% of corporate interest representatives claim to spend less than a quarter of their public affairs budgets on direct lobbying (EURACTIV 09/03/09).
“This leaves an important effort to indirect interest representation,” Kallas continued, such as an event organised by a think-tank which “offers the event sponsor visibility and a platform”.
The commissioner concluded his letter by repeating his invitation to Friends of Europe to join the register, and said he would consider the invitation to attend the debate “in light of [the] reply”.
The EU executive will review the success of its lobby register’s first year in the summer, while work to establish a common scheme with the European Parliament will continue early in the next parliamentary term.
The two institutions agreed joint guidelines and a draft code of conduct for a single register last week (EURACTIV 23/04/09).