European Law Monitor

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European Law Monitor newsShedding (more) light on Brussels lobbies

Should there be a register for lobbyists in the EU? Should it be voluntary or mandatory? And to what extent should lobby groups disclose their income sources? These were the big issues during a workshop on lobbying organised 8 October by the Constitutional Affairs Committee, ahead of a Parliament report on the issue. Read what MEPs and Brussels lobbyists think.

People walking in front of the EP hemicycle in BrusselsMEPs generally felt that lobbying was a positive force, but most workshop participants agreed that there should be register of lobbyists to prevent misconduct. There was less agreement on what lobbyists would have to disclose, for example finances and clients, and on whether   registration should be voluntary or obligatory.
"Lobbying, taken for itself, is something positive. We (MEPs) welcome everybody that can contribute something," said Committee Chairman, German Socialist Jo Leinen.
"I believe that lobbying is an essential part of the parliamentary process," said Alexander Stubb of the Finnish National Coalition, who is drafting the report on lobbying. Lobbyists "provide useful information (and MEPs are) smart enough to realise that the information they get is subjective".
On the other hand Luxembourg Green Claude Turmes sees the "huge dependence on lobby advice (as) a   weakness." He said it would be better if MEPs had larger staffs to gather independent information.

Lobbying - a black box?

There were also concerns about a lack of transparency. "Brussels lobbying a black box. No one knows who is lobbying on behalf of whom and on what issue," said Paul de Clerck of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency & Ethics Regulation (ALTER EU).
Among the problems he highlighted were "front groups" who pretend to represent citizens but have in fact been initiated by lobbying consultancies and funded by companies with vested interests. Mr de Clerck said current rules make it difficult to figure out which groups fall into this category.
He also noted that many people who work for the European Commission or another EU institution then move on to work for lobbying groups.  

Registering lobbyists: voluntary or mandatory?

In late 2006 the EP supported "calls for mandatory disclosure for corporate and other lobbyists." A voluntary register will be launched early next year, on the initiative of Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas. Lyn Trytsman-Gray, from the Society of European Affairs Professionals, said, "We are comfortable with voluntary registration and in principle SEAP members would like to be in a position to register."
However, British Socialist Richard Corbett said, "A voluntary system is not going to work. The people that you want registering are those that don't want to."
Jim Murray of the European Consumer´s Organisation BEUC warned: "There must be clear incentives in registering, if the voluntary system is to have any success...Given the number of interests that threaten to boycott the register it may not be long before a mandatory system will be introduced. He suggested that Parliament should deny access to lobbyists not on the Commission register.

What about the money?

The inclusion of financial data, as planned by the Commission, was hotly debated. José Lalloum from the European Public Affairs Consultancies Association said, "EPACA does not oppose financial disclosure if it is applied to everyone alike across the board with a clear set of criteria and if issues of commercial contractual obligations are respected." But in the case of voluntary registration, financial disclosure would distort competition between those registering and those that don´t. His organisation won't recommend that members sign up to a voluntary register.
Thomas Tindeman, from the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe said: "the public disclosure of clients…would be against the rule of client confidentiality (and) could involve criminal sanctions for the lawyer concerned".

Lessons to be learned from Washington?

Comparisons were drawn with the Washington Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 which provides for a definition of what a lobbyist is and for obligatory registration and disclosure of lobbying income and expenditure.
Several speakers were very positive about the US lobbying act's detailed and clear definitions, but Mr Corbett pointed to "huge difference between the EU and the US" particularly the much heavier dependence in the US on financial campaign contributions.
Article and photo copyright of the European Parliament