In its review of the transparency register, the EU will propose new ways to penalise lobbyists who refuse to disclose information about their methods, but divisions over mandatory registration still hamper the tool's effectiveness.
A joint working group of the European Parliament and European Commission are expected to finalise a review of the EU’s transparency register for lobby organisations by the end of December. The review will beef up the register's control of lobbying activities in Brussels.
Sources say the review will focus on recommendations allowing the EU institutions to put political pressure on lobby organisations, “making life more difficult” for them, according to a well-placed Commission source.
Unregistered organisations will have restricted access to EU buildings, and registered lobbyists will benefit from perks such as easier access to expert meetings, commissioners or other officials.
The joint secretariat, which administers the register, will take action in bringing lobbyists in line. “We can use political pressure or media pressure [to have organisations register and report correct information],” the Commission source said. “This would make the register quasi-mandatory.”
Mandatory registration pushed forward
One of the demands that transparency NGOs have called for in the past is to deny lobbyists who do not register in the database access to policymakers.
“Making registration mandatory is what the public, and even a large part of the lobby groups expect,” Paul de Clerck of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) told EURACTIV. “In the past, the EU Parliament has voted in favour of a mandatory register. The credibility of Parliament is at risk if they don’t [push to make the register mandatory],” de Clerck added.
The EU executive is hesitant to pursue this objective, it now seems. The register lacks the legal basis to make registration for lobbyists mandatory. The EU Council is also unlikely to grant the Transparency Register’s secretariat such legal tools to pressure lobbyists.
“There is no legal framework that allows us to enforce this, nor is there the political will,” the Commission source said. “Insisting on a mandatory register is not the best use of our time. Also, organisations that are actually paying lobbyists would fall out of the scope – even with mandatory registered lobbying.”
But the European Parliament voted in favour of a mandatory register in the past, and political groups of the centre and the left are keen to sketch out a roadmap for future legislation.
"What could be a possible outcome, is to reach a deal on [establishing a mandatory register in] the coming years. This would leave the possibility of getting the EU Council involved," said the Parliament's vice-president, Rainer Wieland, who is coordinating the parliament's input to the working group in charge of the review.
>>Read: Parliament VP: If you want true lobby policing, you need more resources
The working group's conclusions could include rough plans to introduce a mandatory register within a couple of years’ time. "Our approach is a long-term one," said Wieland, "but things are too close to call at this point. A lot is still in motion."
Karl Isaksson, the president of EPACA, representing public affairs organisations in Brussels, in an earlier interview emphasised that most lobbyists and their clients agree on a strong register: "New clients comes in and usually understands that [being registered] is the way it works. Putting the request to register front and centre will help," he says.
Information left unscrutinised
One of the issues haunting the register since its creation is the lack of resources to investigate what lobbyists report. In the past, watchdog NGOs have pointed to inaccuracies in the data provided. Behind closed doors, the secretariat admits that it is understaffed and unable to thoroughly check the data.
Over the past two years, the secretariat held random checks in about 900 cases. It followed up on around 50 cases, in which the register’s staff contacted lobby organisations asking to clarify their entries. These figures will be clarified in the secretariat's annual status report, to be released in the coming weeks.
“We can do more to scrutinise,” the Commission source admits, “but right now, we have to operate with what we have.”
"We would like to see more resources devoted to checking the facts," Isaksson of EPACA stressed earlier. "Policing the register, so to speak."
The Transparency Register has grown considerably since it came into effect in June 2011. It now has around 6,000 entries, which makes up an estimated 75% of Brussels’ business representatives and 60% of NGOs. The figure matches a rough number of 30,000 lobbyists in Europe’s capital.