Think-tanks should join EU lobby register, Kallas insists

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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). 

"Let me assure you that [Friends of Europe is] not being singled out. It is our general policy, communicated to all commissioners' cabinets and directorates-general, to encourage registration when invited to any conference or event falling within the scope of the register," wrote Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas in a letter addressed to the think-tank. 

Friends of Europe Secretary-General Giles Merritt, the think-tank's founder, said "none of the leading think-tanks have a problem with making public the details of their financial resources, as they in any case supply them to the Commission every year," adding: "Ours will shortly be available on our website." 

Nevertheless, think-tanks "have major reservations about volunteering to classify themselves as lobbyists when they so clearly are not," Merritt continued. 

"Why will the Commission not consider creating a separate list for us?," he wondered. 

The EU executive and the European Parliament last week reached agreement on common guidelines and a code of conduct for a joint, voluntary lobbyists register for the two institutions, and agreed to hold further talks on establishing a single scheme "as early as possible in the next parliamentary term" (EURACTIV 23/04/09). 

The 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). 

The register features three main categories of lobbyists - professional consultancies and law firms, corporate lobbyists and trade associations, and NGOs and think-tanks – and the requirements for inclusion in the register vary for all three, particularly regarding financial disclosure. 

Consultancies and law firms are asked to provide a detailed breakdown of lobbying revenue in brackets of €50,000 or percentage brackets of 10%, while corporate 'in-house' lobbyists and trade associations must estimate their costs associated with the direct lobbying of all the EU institutions. 

NGOs and think-tanks must publish their overall budgets and indicate their main sources of funding. 

The number of think-tanks in Europe has more than quadrupled in recent years, and they have become more active and inventive at disseminating policy solutions to decision-makers, argue Stephen Boucher and Martine Royo in a book entitled 'Les Think-tanks: Cerveaux de la Guerre des Idées' (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on 'The changing face of European think-tanks'). 

A recent study by the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) estimates that there are 1,200 think-tanks in Europe, and asserts that there are over 5,000 in operation worldwide. 

  • 4-7 June 2009: European Parliament elections. 
  • June 2009: Commission to review success of lobby register's first year. 
  • Early in next EP term: Work on common register to continue. 
  • Oct. 2009: Official end of current Commission’s mandate. 

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