Top European companies ‘lobbying in secret’, says NGO


The European Union's fifty largest companies continue to hide behind trade groups to do their lobbying despite recent attempts by the European Commission to improve the transparency of EU decision-making, according to a new report to be released today (22 April).  

Twenty of the fifty largest companies in the EU have not signed up to the voluntary lobby registration scheme introduced by the European Commission in 2008, according to Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE), an NGO.

According to FoEE, this is enough proof that the EU executive's lobby register is "failing in its ambition to provide reliable and transparent information about lobbying activities in the European Union".

The NGO's study – entitled 'Lobbying in Brussels: How much do the top 50 companies in the EU spend?' – asserts that big companies often prefer to use trade organisations to do their lobbying, because such groups offer them more discretion.

Most Europeans rarely associate lobbying by industry associations with a specific company, making it easy for firms "to hide behind public affairs consultancies and professional organisations," the report says.

Indeed, a cursory glance at the website of CompTIA, which represents the global IT industry, gives no details of the association's membership. Asked by EURACTIV to comment on this, Hugo Lueders of CompTIA's Brussels office said such details were "trade secrets" that the association's members did not wish to make known.

Moreover, "big multinational companies such as Shell, BP, Arcelor Mittal, EADS and Peugeot declare far lower lobbying budgets than much less visible NGOs" like the Eurogroup for Animals and Friends of the Countryside, FoEE found.

Companies lobbying 'in the dark'

Citizens' failure to realise what is going on allows businesses to "avoid disclosing their own lobbying" and "keep their activities in the dark," the report claims, laying the blame squarely at the feet of the European Commission for designing a voluntary register with weak disclosure requirements.

Natacha Cingotti of FoEE, the report's author,explained that many companies "with a very strong presence" in Brussels, including Vodafone, Deutsche Bank, Nestlé and E.ON, have not signed up to the register, adding that "most company entries are not realistic". 

Asked by EURACTIV to comment, a spokesman for BusinessEurope, which represents European business, said the association supports the aim of transparency but favours a simple and workable system. He declined to comment on the report. 

Many representatives of the companies that have opted not to register hold access badges to the European Parliament, according to FoEE, "clearly revealing that they are involved in lobbying activities" and highlighting the failings of the Commission's scheme.

EU executive refutes boycott allegations

Refuting suggestions that Europe's biggest companies were boycotting the register, Michael Mann, spokesperson for Commission Vice-President Maroš Šef?ovi?, responsible for inter-institutional relations and administration at the EU executive, told EURACTIV that "there is certainly no campaign to boycott it".

"Each organisation takes its own decision. We think signing up is a good signal that an organisation is prepared to be transparent," Mann said, pointing out that close to 2,700 bodies had signed up.

FoEE, meanwhile, is calling for the establishment as soon as possible of a joint, mandatory lobby register between the European Commission and the European Parliament.

"If the Commission is serious about securing lobbying transparency, it should make registration mandatory," FoEE's Cingotti insisted.

Talks between the two institutions have been stalled since last June's European elections, but Commission Vice-President Šef?ovi?has pledged to restart negotiations.

Outlining the state of play on establishing a common register, the Commission vice-president's spokesperson Mann told EURACTIV that "the process is already underway and will be reinvigorated now that [Šef?ovi?] is in office".

'No plans' to introduce mandatory scheme, Commission says

Asked whether the Commission was planning to move towards a mandatory register, Mann answered "no, there are no such plans". "We think the system is working well on the current basis," he said.

The FoEE report alleges that much of the information contained in the current register is "unrealistic" and relates to the previous year, while a requirement for registrants to update the information they provide just once a year produces "inconsistent and unreliable data".

It cites the oil industry as a case in point for showing "a surprising law of decreasing lobbying: the bigger the company, the less it spends on lobbying".  

Of the 50 companies covered by the study, only five reported EU lobbying budgets of between €500,000 and €1m, compared with seven in the USA, while just three reported spending over €1m in Europe (compared with 10 in the US).

But the Commission questioned the value of making such comparisons. "It's not possible to make a direct comparison between Brussels and Washington, where the context and environment of lobbying are completely different," said Mann.  

Negotiations on drawing up a common register between the Commission and the Parliament are ongoing. 

Business representatives hit back at the report's allegations by insisting that European companies were not boycotting the European Commission's lobby register. 

"90-95% of EU businesses are SMEs and they are following the rules," said Luc Hendrickx, director for enterprise policy and external relations at European SME association UEAPME.

"We are very happy with the declarations of our members," he said, adding: "I see no problems at all."

Hendrickx said it was "very difficult" for most of UEAPME's individual members to lobby at EU level because they do not have "the power or the means" to do so, while all the SME association's member organisations are registered individually.

Asked whether Europe's small and medium-sized enterprises would object to the establishment of lobby register at EU level that is common to the European Commission and the European Parliament, the SME representative replied "no, not at all".

"True transparency, however, is in UEAPME’s view transparency from the Commission’s side regarding the basis upon decisions are taken," Hendrickx insisted.

"It is every citizen’s right to know in general how and why decisions are taken," the SME representative said, adding that "the Commission should give feedback after consultation about the changes made in policy decisions, the reasons why the arguments presented by the different stakeholders were or were not taken into account, and which reasons or arguments led to the taking of a decision".

Asked about the possibility of the EU institutions making inclusion in a common lobby register a condition of being granted an access badge to the European Parliament, Hendrickx said "if we start talking about access badges, then we're getting into the realm of individual rights".

Making access to the European Parliament would run against people's "democratic right" to access their parliaments, Hendrickx claimed, adding that "the European Parliament should be as open and democratic as possible".

Referring to the Commission's lobby register, Hugo Lueders at the Brussels office of CompTIA, an association representing the global IT industry, said "we are not registered and have no interest in doing so while the scheme remains voluntary".

Lueders said some of the association's members are registered with the European Parliament in order to get access badges.

Speaking ahead of the report's launch, co-author Paul de Clerck of Friends of the Earth Europe said "in its current form the European Commission's lobby register fails in its goal to safeguard reliable information and to end the culture of secrecy around lobbying in Brussels".

"To give the public an accurate picture of big company lobbying, a joint Parliament and Commission mandatory register is needed that includes names of individual lobbyists, the specific dossiers they are lobbying on, and has stringent financial disclosure requirements," de Clerck concluded. 

Last autumn, the European Commission published a wide-ranging review of the lobby registration scheme launched by Siim Kallas, a vice-president of the EU executive, in 2008 (EURACTIV 29/10/09).

The scheme, which the Commission describes as "the first-ever European benchmark for legitimate lobbying," is designed to help citizens identify the lobbyists who seek to influence EU policymaking. 

According to the EU executive, the register's guiding purpose is to "dispel suspicion that decisions are made for any reason other than the common European interest". 

Last year's changes introduced tighter financial disclosure rules for registrants, abolishing the percentage-based system in favour of differentiated brackets according to the size of turnover declared.

The review also confirmed the Commission's view that think-tanks are interest representatives and most are expected to participate in the register, despite some diverging opinions.

The proposed changes are not expected to come into effect until June at the earliest, once the European Parliament has had the opportunity to vote on the new rules. 

  • 22 April: Publication of Friends of the Earth Europe report. 

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