Monday, 29 September 2008

Meager harvest: just 5-10% of EU lobbyists now registered

It is now more than three months since the Commission launched its online register for lobbyists, and there are just over 370 entries. Exactly how good or bad that is in terms of compliance rate is difficult to judge, but it probably represents merely 5-10% of the total. The Commission has carefully avoided estimating the number of “interest representatives” (firms, industry lobby groups, NGOs, think-thanks, etc.) involved in lobbying the EU who should register. This, however, is crucial in judging how effective the voluntary approach is for securing transparency around EU lobbying.

The European Parliament’s Directorate-General for Research has estimated that in the year 2000 “about 2,600 interest groups had a permanent office downtown Brussels”, of which pan-European industry lobby groups made up one-third, individual corporations and national business groups each 10% and commercial consultants one fifth. The report estimated that 10% of the offices were run by NGOs. Today, eight years later, the total number of Brussels-based lobby entities is likely to have increased substantially beyond 2,600. And lobbyists targeting EU institutions from offices in London, Paris, Berlin and other capitals across the EU obviously should register too.

Actually a remarkable share of those who have registered in the first three months do not have a Brussels office. Among the 29 lobby consultancy firms currently in the register, only 12 say they have a Brussels office. On its register website, the Commission states that “all entities engaged in ‘activities carried out with the objective of influencing the policy formulation and decision-making process of the European institutions’ are expected to register”. With such a broad definition and without an exemption for those groups that only rarely engage in EU lobbying, the number of lobby entities outside of Brussels required to register is huge, but also virtually impossible to estimate precisely. This, clearly, makes it very hard to judge the level of compliance with the voluntary register. In the US and Canada, by the way, there are thresholds which secure that citizens, community groups and others that clearly are not professional lobbyists are exempted from disclosure obligations.

Numbers aside, there is every reason for the European Commission to start worrying about the willingness of commercial lobbyists to register voluntarily, let alone to disclose relevant details. The EUobserver revealed on September 16th that a number of Brussels-based lobby consultancies plan not to disclose the names of clients who don’t want to be identified. Jose Lalloum, who heads the commercial lobbyists’ club EPACA, said that: “if the contract with the client stated somewhere that they did not want their name to be disclosed to the outside world, then the [company] cannot do so." If the Commission accepts this line of argument, it will create a loophole through which lobby consultancies can hide any client they would prefer not to disclose. They could even make non-disclosure a standard clause in their contracts. Just one of EPACA’s 29 members has registered so far – Athenora, one of the smaller consultancies in Brussels. It remains to be seen whether and when lobby consultancy giants like Weber Shandwick, Burson-Marsteller or Gplus will register, but also whether they will actually disclose which clients they lobby for and with which budgets. The most burning question is: will the Commission let them get away with hiding the very information which the register was set up to bring into the public domain?