MEPs call for mandatory register of Brussels lobbyists

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - A European Parliament committee on Tuesday (1 April) called for a mandatory register of the estimated 15-20,000 lobbyists in Brussels that wander the halls of the European institutions aiming to influence legislation.

In a significant victory for campaigners for transparency in public institutions, a report approved by the parliament's constitutional affairs committee recommends that 'interest representatives' – commonly known as lobbyists – be forced to be listed in a joint register covering the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council – where member states are represented.

In earlier drafts of the report by Finnish centre-right MEP Alexander Stubb outlining a series of rules for lobbyists, it had been suggested that such a register be voluntary, as is the case with the current proposed lobbyist register for the European Commission.

However, the committee approved a series of amendments to the draft report that also would demand "full financial disclosure" of public affairs consultancies and law firms, covering their turnover, expenditures associated with lobbying and, in the case of NGOs and think-tanks, their budget and sources of funding.

The inclusion of think-tanks in the proposal was also a major win for transparency campaigners, who argued that the research bodies, which had earlier been excluded from the report, were "a major part of the lobbying community" in Brussels.

"By recognising these are key lobbying channels in Brussels, MEPs have closed an important loophole in the proposal," said Luxembourg Green MEP Claude Turmes.

These gains were largely the result of oral amendments tabled by Green MEPs, who also managed to win a requirement that lawyers be included in the register not only when their purpose is to influence policy, but also when they give legal advice, which they argued was still a form of lobbying activity.

Erik Wesselius, of ALTER-EU, an organisation that campaigns for lobbying transparency in Europe, was pleased with the result.

"We're quite positive," he said. "We had been very disappointed with the first draft," he added, "but with these amendments, it's much better and in particular there is now a clear choice in favour of a mandatory register and full financial disclosure."

He was also hopeful that the report would put pressure on the European Commission to adopt similar measures in its proposed lobbying register.

"The parliament's report gives a strong incentive for the commission to move in the direction of a mandatory register as well."

Both Mr Wesselius and Mr Turmes still felt however that the timetable for the implementation of a lobbying registry was too lengthy.

"We've already spent three years on the European Transparency Initiative," said the ALTER-EU campaigner. "Another three years for the implementation of a registry would total six years that Europe's been working on this – a schedule that's pretty hard to explain to citizens."

"The registry needs to be implemented before the parliamentary elections of 2009. We need to have an ambitious timetable," said Mr Turmes.

He also said that he wants to see a public list of lobbyists excluded from the register for misbehaviour, and pointed out that "full financial disclosure" would only be meaningful if a full break-down of lobbying expenditure is described.

"We need to know how much, say, BASF, has been spending lobbying around REACH [the European chemicals legislation] on reports, conferences and so on." The bandwidth for such financial disclosure in the US lobbyist register is expenditures of less than $10,000, but there is as yet no detail as to what financial disclosure means in Europe.

"A bandwidth of under €100,000, as has been suggested, doesn't give journalists or civil society a strong enough tool to see where the money goes."

The European Public Affairs Consultancies Association (EPACA), the trade association representing commercial lobbyists, said it was happy with the result in particular the call for a registry covering all the European institutions.

"It's a step in the right direction by suggesting a 'one-stop shop'," said Jose Lalloum, the chairperson of EPACA. "The amendments from the Greens helped as well – particularly the inclusion of lawyers and think-tanks. It's important to have a level playing field for all the operators."

Mr Lalloum also supported a mandatory register. "If the institutions want full financial disclosure, then a mandatory system is welcome. We've always argued that this would be very difficult in a voluntary register," he said.

Where EPACA parts company from the transparency campaigners is on the degree of financial disclosure.

"It's a good thing that the amendment on a very precise definition of financial disclosure failed," said Mr Lalloum. "Broadly financial disclosure is fine, but there is also a need to protect commercially sensitive information."

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