Friday, 31 July 2009

Confidential: Law Firm Lobbyists at Work

As law firms continue to evade transparency on their lobbying activities by boycotting the European Commission’s register of interest representatives, Corporate Europe Observatory decided to shed some light on the extent of law firm lobbying in Brussels.

Law firms are not required to register their activities – the Commission’s register remains voluntary for all interest representatives – and in July, just four law firms had registered.

A quick survey by CEO shows that while 16 law firms in Brussels have lobbyists registered with the European Parliament, none of these firms appear on the Commission’s register. Of these 16, international firm DLA Piper seems to lead the field, with six members of staff registered as lobbyists at the European Parliament.

Ten individuals from five Brussels law firms are registered as members of the Society of European Affairs Professionals (SEAP), the body established to represent and lobby on behalf of public affairs professionals. DLA Piper is also a member of the European Public Affairs Consultancies Association (EPACA).

Indeed a number of the Brussels law firms appear keen to promote their lobbying activities to potential clients – while preferring not to sign up to the transparency register. As previously noted, 110 law firms are listed in the European Public Affairs Directory, with seven of these highlighting lobbying as one of the services they offer. A larger number of law firms advertise their lobbying services via their own websites.

International firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, for example, publishes an online brochure highlighting how they “offer clients strategic policy advice and help to shape EU legislation and administrative decisions.”

The brochure goes on: “A large part of our work relates to shaping draft EU legislative measures. We analyse the potential effect of draft legislation on our clients’ business activities and in co-operation with our clients define threats, opportunities and strategic goals. We then devise and implement detailed campaigns, encompassing both legal and public affairs advice.”

Indeed Freshfields’ lawyer Paul Bowden has even recorded a video message to potential energy clients encouraging them to lobby the EU over the third phase of the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

US firm Covington and Burling describe themselves as “one of the leading law firms in Brussels” when it comes to public affairs, “helping to ensure that industry’s voice is heard in the EU legislative process and in administrative decision making”. They are also particularly proud to advertise the expertise of their European Policy Advisor, Wim van Velzen – a former MEP and vice president of the European People’s Party.

Another US firm, White and Case, are also keen to promote their lobbying skills, telling potential clients that “White & Case lawyers were involved in the preparations for Europe’s legislation on electronic waste before any draft texts were published”.

Other firms, such as WilmerHale, maintain a low public profile for their lobbying services. They do not appear to have any lobbyists registered with the European Parliament and none of their staff appear to be registered with SEAP.

Of course nobody is pretending that law firms are not involved in lobbying – what is in question is the need for transparency. Law firms claim that their clients’ confidentiality must be maintained.

Cleary there are good arguments for confidentiality when representing a client in court, but there is no reason why law firms should be exempt from the general rule that registered lobbyists must disclose the names of their clients and give an indication of the income generated from lobbying on behalf of these clients.

Given the extent of law firm lobbying in Brussels, the law firms’ boycot of the register is unacceptable. It is now more than a year since the register was launched – the Commission must act to remedy this flaw.


Monday, 13 July 2009

The Commission's bad excuse for not delivering lobby transparency

As yet, it is not clear whether the Commission will announce changes to the lobby transparency register before the summer break or wait until September.

Officials from the Commission's Secretariat-General are in charge of drawing up conclusions from the review of the register's first year, incorporating stakeholder feedback. A central figure in this process is Jens Nymand Christensen, who told EurActiv that "contributions to the review reflect what we knew a year ago: some think we haven't gone far enough, and others think we've gone too far. We've tried to find the middle ground". Nymand Christensen's approach does not exactly bode well for the quality of the Commission's review.

While the input from stakeholder groups should clearly be considered, the Commission’s job is to make whatever changes necessary to ensure the transparency register fulfils its goals: securing visibility around who lobbies EU decision-makers, on whose behalf and with what financial means. Aiming for "the middle ground" between the positions of different lobby groups will not result in a quality outcome. Instead it leads to a lowest common denominator approach that effectively gives the anti-transparency lobbyists victory. A closer look at the contributions to the Commission's stakeholder consultation for the register review reveals why.

Comments have been sent in by eight groups, half of which are corporate lobbies, and the other half of which are public interest groups and coalitions. Transparency International, the Civil Society Contact Group, consumer lobby BEUC and ALTER-EU have called for mandatory registration, closing the loopholes in financial disclosure and adding the names of lobbyists to the register.

In stark contrast, EPACA and SEAP (on behalf of the for-profit lobby consultancies), the council of law firms as well as AmCham (US firms) all urge the Commission not to go beyond the current level of transparency. In its comments, EPACA warns that it "could produce a reversal in the trend of additional registrations, and some deregistration, if the Commission changed the ground rules on financial disclosure". This implicit threat of leaving the register is repeated at the end of EPACA’s text. In the light of the Commission's 'finding-the-middle-ground' approach, there is every reason to fear that EPACA's threats will make the Commission shy away from common sense improvements to the register.