In December, the joint European Commission-European Parliament working group to review the European Union’s transparency register finalised its work. We at The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation were hoping for an early Christmas present –in the form of a clear roadmap towards a mandatory lobby register by 2015. However, we have been sorely disappointed.
Leaked documents make it clear that while the parliament has reasserted its call for a mandatory register, the commission – which holds the power needed to initiate such a step – has continued to block progress. As the parliament did not make the call for a mandatory register a key issue in the negotiations, it did not get any concrete commitment from the commission.
The most that the parliament has been able to do, as revealed in a leaked letter from Rainer Wieland MEP – the chairman of the review group – to EP President Martin Schulz is to call for the commission to “promote a political action aimed at the creation of a new legal basis for the introduction of a mandatory register”. The letter adds: “In case the commission fails to reach this goal, the parliament resolution should call on it to submit – by the end of 2016 – a proposal for the introduction of a compulsory register based on the currently existing legal basis.”
It is hard to see this work becoming an immediate priority, as it does not oblige the commission to do anything at all. In the face of such intransigence over a mandatory lobby register, the next best thing would be a voluntary register with plenty of incentives for lobbyists to sign-up – thereby making such registration de facto mandatory. But here too, the working group has made few firm commitments and again the commission has not committed to anything concrete.
The MEPs on the working group have offered to link public affairs registration to “further facilitation of access to parliament premises, its members and staff; authorisation to organise or co-host events on its premises; facilitated transmission of information, including specific mailing lists; participation as speakers in committee hearings; patronage by the institution”. If these ideas were implemented, it would be a step forward although it is true to say that for most lobbyists it is access to the commission that is the real prize.
For its part, the commission has not concretely committed to any incentives and another leaked document – the draft inter-institutional agreement on the register – simply says: “For the commission these could include measures with regard to the transmission of information to registrants when launching public consultations, measures on expert groups and other advisory bodies, specific mailing lists or patronage by the institution.” In our view, these possible incentives are far too vague and the commission has made no firm commitment to refuse to meet with unregistered lobbyists, even though civil society groups and representatives of big lobby firms gathered in the European Public Affairs Consultancies’ Association were asking for that. The commission also failed to prevent unregistered lobbyists from sitting on expert groups. Such measures are required to really incentivise the currently unregistered organisations and law firms to join.
These and other outcomes of the working group have led ALTER-EU to brand the final conclusions as “hugely disappointing”. In a scorecard, which assesses the outcome of the review process against our own recommendations for reform, we could not find any evidence of ‘good progress’. Out of the 10 recommendations for reform, five were assessed as ‘no progress made’. These include action to tackle the widespread boycott of the transparency register by lobbying law firms. There are no concrete and positive measures proposed to ensure that law firms, which carry out EU-level lobby work, will register in the future. There are also no real improvements to the lobbyists’ code of conduct or any new requirement for registrants to list by name the lobbyists who carry out their work.
We did judge a handful of areas as ‘some improvement, more to do’. There are some minor improvements to the information disclosure requirements required for registration but overall, as a result of this review, little will change in practical terms. It seems clear that both the MEPs on the working group and European Commissioner for Inter-institutional Relations and Administration Maroš Šefčovič – also was a member of the group – have approached this review with a real lack of ambition. This has been reflected in the final outcome. And with the next review of the lobby register not scheduled until 2017, wholesale improvements to the EU’s lobby rules have been kicked into the long grass.
Lobbying transparency is vital if European citizens are to have confidence that EU decisions are made in the public interest. Yet this review has paid scant attention to these concerns. This is shocking considering the power of corporate lobbyists in Brussels when it comes to undermining climate change, food labelling, tobacco control and many other policies. It is also shocking that decision-makers in Brussels have chosen to be so complacent about these issues in the run up to European elections.