The many different transparency requirements across the EU are a minefield for lobbyists and lawmakers alike. Mandatory and voluntary systems both have their own advantages, but neither has been able to solve the industry’s image problem.
In a recent poll, 78% of French citizens said they disapproved of lobbying in general and 81% said they believed it tends to favour private interests over the common good. For the speakers at the lobbying transparency event hosted by the European Public Affairs Consultancies’ Association (EPACA) in Brussels on Tuesday (31 January), restoring the credibility of their profession was a top priority.
Several EU countries have introduced registers to bring transparency to the world of lobbying and public affairs. In many cases, these registers are a direct response to scandals involving public figures.
In the UK and Ireland, dubious planning decisions provided main the driving force for action, while the French register was established as a direct response to the Cahuzac affair. A former minister in charge of tackling tax fraud, Jérôme Cahuzac was sentenced to three years in prison last December for fraud and money laundering.
While experts from these countries agree that transparency registers were needed, they disagree on how they should be implemented.
Mandatory or voluntary?
For Mark Glover, the chairman of the UK’s Association of Professional Political Consultants (APPC), industry-wide self-regulation is the only effective answer. “Adherence to individual standards does not work, as companies need an independent judge. But there is too much bureaucracy with a statutory system,” he said.
Westminster introduced a statutory lobbying register two years ago, which only applies to lobbyists representing third party clients. This compulsory list has “no credibility” with either parliamentarians or lobbyists in London, and unfairly targets external consultants, Glover said.
“The APPC supports transparency, but it is critical to have a level playing field between external and in-house lobbyists,” he said.
The Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII) sees things differently. John Carroll, the institute’s chief executive, is strongly in favour of a mandatory transparency list.
“Mandatory lists increase professionalism in the business. Every time a company is obliged to fill in a public form, they will want to make sure they are not providing fodder for journalists looking for scandals,” he said.
Ireland has the strongest lobbying transparency rules in the EU. Not only does it require all meetings between domestic elected officials and lobbyists to be registered, but it is the only member state to extend this requirement to MEPs.
Barriers to harmonisation
Brussels introduced a transparency register in 2014, which lobbyists must sign if they wish to meet high-ranking members of the European Institutions. Signatories must also give financial details of lobbying deals.
While this register may be seen by some as the prototype for a harmonised EU transparency register, progress on the issue is slow.
Not only do EU countries differ greatly in their definitions of a lobbyist, but different rules governing revolving doors and the registration of elected officials, as well as resistance from politicians themselves, are serious barriers to harmonisation.
And the Brussels register’s requirement for financial declarations is not necessarily one that EU states would want to replicate.
Demanding details of consultancy spending would “push people off the register altogether,” Glover said, warning that companies would instead invoice for communications activities that are not subject to transparency requirements.
For Carroll, the financial declarations demanded by the Brussels lobby transparency register are nothing more than “titillation for journalists”. How much a consultancy charges for their services is neither here nor there, he argued.
While Glover questioned whether lobbying registers had improved behaviour in the UK, insisting that there had not been a genuine lobbying scandal for the last ten years, he accepted that transparency was good for the profession’s image.
The Irish system works very well, said Carrol, in spite of the lack of awareness from both politicians and the public. “But success is never a story,” he said. In order to make the public and politicians take transparency seriously, “it will take another scandal”.