Privileged access vs. public scrutiny - why lobbying transparency matters

Every day, thousands of lobbyists roam the corridors of Brussels to represent business interests, with most of their actions and affiliations hidden from the public. What can be done against the influence of special interests in European public policy-making?

ALTER-EU. All right reserved.ALTER-EU. All right reserved.

Last week, the Guardian reported that the 'buddy scheme' between government ministers and multinationals is to be extended. I beg your pardon? Democratically elected representatives of the public, in a one-to-one with the CEOs of the world's most powerful companies? When public policy-making institutionalises corporate privileged access, it's high time to demand mandatory registration of lobbyists, and far-reaching transparency and ethics rules for public representatives. In this, the European Union institutions in Brussels are no different from Westminster.

In Brussels, we estimate between 25.000 and 30.000 professional lobbyists currently roam the corridors of the EU institutions, a large majority representing business interests. Without rules on transparency and ethics for lobbying, the influence of corporate lobbyists in particular on EU policy-making would largely remain out of public sight. The influence granted to corporate lobbyists in EU decision-making raises serious concerns over the EU's claimed impartiality and its democratic principle.

The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) is convinced that in the current setting, corporate lobbyists enjoy a particularly privileged access to law-makers that is unhealthy for the EU and the world; a world in need of urgent progress on social, environmental and consumer-protection reforms. We hold the opinion that anyone who tries to influence public policy-making in a paid capacity should be transparent about it. This includes everyone, also those hard-to-get professions such as 'lawyers that do lobbying', 'public affairs experts' and 'advocacy officers'. And we don't shy away from being transparent ourselves, be it through pro-active financial disclosure on our website and those of our members, or in complying with the flawed European transparency register.

What we're wishing for is that lobbying transparency will lead to an informed public debate and that as such, democratically agreed safeguards are installed to protect the public interest in public decision-making. For us, lobbying transparency is not an end in itself, but is an important means to that end. To use a quote of one of our colleagues from the United States, government affairs lobbyist Craig Holman: “Transparency is the base, on which we build the house of democracy.”

Back in spring 2011, the European Parliament and European Commission jointly launched the so-called “Transparency Register”, for all organisations that attempt to influence EU policies. ALTER-EU welcomed the register and the improvements it brought as a small step forward, but has continued to stress that several fundamental flaws remain. We had hoped that these would be fixed, but by now it's clear the joint secretariat of the European Commission and European Parliament, for the time being at least, does not seriously intend to do so. Even though a majority of members of the European Parliament adopted a resolution in 2011 in favour of mandatory registration.

Apart from ensuring the register is mandatory, full transparency is needed regarding the size of lobbying consultancies contracts over 10,000 euros. If lobbying efforts are concerned, financial disclosure is of the utmost importance. For a meaningful discussion about lobbying, it's necessary to be clear about who is spending what on lobbying. In an ideal world, the best argument wins the debate. In Brussels, like in the world's other schmoozing hot-spot, Washington DC, the most persistent argument often has the upper-hand, which means those that can afford to pay for persistence often win.

Other urgently needed improvements include safeguards against 'under-reporting' (understating the actual revenues/costs of lobbying practices) through regular checks on registrations and meaningful enforcement of the rules to prevent under-reporting; clearer guidance on disclosure requirements (depending on what is released) so that there's a greater level of transparency on funding sources of all registrants; and last but not least, publication of the names of lobbyists that have been found to be in breach of the rules.

For any country that goes through rapid political and economic changes, robust regulations regarding lobbying are an absolute must to prevent special interests from subordinating general interest in public policy-making. This becomes even more important when considering the fragile construction of 27 countries that are governed from an often remote European capital.

During the last couple of years, citizens' trust in the EU has been rocked by numerous political and lobbying scandals. The cash-for-amendments scandal, that recently led to a 4-year prison sentence for an ex-MEP charged with corruption; revolving door cases of high rank EU officials who 'switch sides' and move into private sector lobby jobs; the tobacco scandal around ex-Health Commissioner Dalli who was forced to resign; why does the EU resist stricter lobbying regulation, one might wonder?

Reasons given by the European Commission for why, for instance, the Transparency Register is optional, are two-pronged. On the one hand, it has often been said that there are doubts about whether there is a legal basis for making it obligatory. Undoubtedly examining this, proposing treaty changes if necessary, and getting them ratified by all Member States would take some time. But what if the lack of 'legal basis' had been an argument some 50 years ago? Would that not have stopped the process of European integration in its tracks from the outset? Certainly we would not have achieved the kind of political cooperation that we see today, with EU policies ranging from environmental standards to public procurement. ALTER-EU therefore is of the opinion that the current system is weak not because of any legal technicalities, but due to a lack of political will.

On the other hand, spokespeople of the European Commission have claimed that it has a legal obligation to be open and transparent and listen to all points of view when developing legislation. A mandatory system would prevent them from listening to people who are not registered, which would mean that do so – as they currently do - would be breaking the law. The question seems to be how the EU interprets its obligation to be 'open and transparent'. The Commission seems to suggest that this means that they 'have to' speak with all interest representatives, registered and unregistered.

ALTER-EU takes a different approach: for us 'open and transparent' means that it should be crystal clear for citizens who's speaking to whom, about what, for which clients and with what kind of budget. In that sense, our starting point is the interests of citizens, whereas the Commission seems to reason from the viewpoint of lobbyists. With incentives such as access passes to the Parliament's buildings for lobbyists that register, registration seems to be a tool to provide privileged access, instead of public scrutiny.

The European Commission has often made it clear that it relies on 'public pressure' for companies to comply with the register. In fact, it is ALTER-EU's experience that when companies are named and shamed for say, under-reporting, the reflex is to withdraw from the register, instead of improving the data. One could argue that media and watchdog organisations are of major importance to uncovering cases of corruption. After all, it was a team of British investigative journalists at the Sunday Times who were behind revealing the cash-for-amendments scandal. But what media and watchdogs cannot be asked to provide, is lobbying transparency.

Lobbying transparency, in its strict definition, is not a tool for fighting corruption. The European institutions count on other tools for this: internal codes of conduct with rules on accepting gifts or hospitality, Staff Regulation or training on ethics for instance. Whether all these forms of ethics regulation are sufficient, if and when they are properly implemented, is still to be seen.

The public has a right to know who's trying to influence the public policies that at the end of the day are affecting them, it's as simple as that. This kind of information is indispensable for any proper democratic debate and citizens shouldn't be dependent on investigative journalists or watchdog groups to get it, which is unfortunately often the case nowadays. There's still a long road ahead for ALTER-EU and other organisations, movements and activists campaigning on transparency and ethics regulations, before we can expect the Commission to introduce enough transparency to enable such an informed democratic debate. 

About the author

Koen Roovers is EU advisor for the Financial Transparency Coalition. He was previously coalition coordinator of ALTER-EU, a network of over 200 civil society groups that campaigns for lobbying transparency and public accountability.