Thursday, 19 March 2009

Think tank says boycott of register is 'a matter of principle'

In an article on the European Commission's lobby register, Dirk Jan Hekking, Brussels correspondent of Het Financieele Dagblad, notes that law firms and think tanks continue to boycott the register. Among the major Brussels-based think tanks only the European Policy Centre has registered.

In his article, Hekking quotes Matt Dann of the think tank Bruegel: "We object to the fact that the Commission places us in the same category as lobbyists. Our aim is to contribute to the quality of policies by delivering research, debate and analysis based on facts. This is a matter of principle. We are not lobbyists, so we will not register in a lobby register".

This boycott should be a matter of serious concern for the Commission, as it undermines one of the few very strong points of the EU lobby register: think tanks are included and thus expected to provide transparency around their lobby budgets and funding sources. Including think tanks in the lobby register is very appropriate, as the activities of Brussels-based think tanks are aimed at shaping EU policy-making.

Bruegel lists its funding sources on its website, but many EU-focused think tanks refuse such transparency. Such secrecy is often intended to hide covert corporate funding tied to initiatives on specific issues where corporations want to influence EU policy debates and decision-making.

Including think tanks in the register is essential in securing transparency around EU lobbying. Unfortunately, when designing the register the Commission has been too lax on reporting requirements. Think tanks are only asked to declare their sources of income in very broad categories ('public financing', 'donations', 'programme support'). In this way funding by individual companies remains invisible. This is a serious flaw that must be addressed in the review of the register that starts next month.

In the US, think tanks are not covered by lobby disclosure legislation, but transparency campaigners are advocating to fix this massive loophole. J. H. Snider from the New America Foundation proposes to "require think tanks - like lobbyists and political candidates - to disclose their donors; the disclosure rules for think tank lobbyists should be subject to at least the same standards as their non-think-tank colleagues, with the resulting lobbying information integrated into a single, easily accessible lobbyist disclosure database".

The article in Het Financieele Dagblad also provides some examples of how differently firms are calculating the lobby expenditure they report in the Commission's register. French liquor producer Pernod Ricard reports to have spent 460,000 euro on lobbying last year, which includes office rent, but also costs of insurances and parking. Pharma giant Pfizer reports to have spent 750,000 euro, but this is only the salary costs of their lobbyists. The Commission's failure to provide clear definitions makes it impossible to compare the information disclosed in the register or in other ways draw any serious conclusions from the data.

Reference
"Piepjong lobbyregister Europese Commissie is de fase van kinderziektes nog niet door"
Han Dirk Hekking, Het Financieele Dagblad, 17 March 2009

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