Monday, 15 March 2010

Cashing in on secrecy?

Twenty months after the launch of the Commission's voluntary lobbying register, less than 40 percent of Brussels-based lobby consultancies have signed up, according to a new survey from the transparency alliance ALTER-EU.

Some of the consultancies that have chosen to boycott the register even appear to be using this as a selling point to attract new clients. One example is Cabinet DN, a lobby consultancy operating less than 200 metres from the European Parliament, just off Place de Luxembourg. Cabinet DN was set up in 2005 by two Danish former MEP assistants, Timme Bertolt Døssing and Jacob Lund Nielsen.

Cabinet DN is growing rapidly, perhaps as a result of the transparency boycott, and with 16 people now on the team. And, according to various interviews, Cabinet DN is not exactly lightweight when it comes to exerting influence. In an interview with a Danish journalist, Jacob Lund Nielsen even claimed to have written part of the text on liberalisation in EU member states’ postal sectors for the EU's Postal Directive in 2007, on behalf of a corporate client.

Among the lobby consultants that recently joined Cabinet DN are high profile names such as conservative ex-MEPs Christian Rovsing (Denmark) and Chris Heaton-Harris (UK) who left the European Parliament in June 2009. Cabinet DN has also headhunted several European Parliament staffers, including former head of media and spokesman for the UK Conservative Party, Peter Wilding. The team also boasts experienced journalist David Gow, who used to cover European affairs for UK newspaper the Guardian.

According to its website “cabinet DN works on the principle of complete client confidentiality both before, during, and after the completion of assignments”. The Commission's register obliges consultancy firms to list their clients and their relative weight in the firm's turnover. Only firms that are not on the register are therefore able to promise “client confidentiality”.

Confronted with this fact by Danish daily Politiken, Timme Bertolt Døssing maintained that “there is nothing secretive about what we're doing”. He went on to explain that as long as the register was voluntary, he saw no reason to sign up and expose Cabinet DN’s clients. And this is the problem of the current register in a nut shell; as long as it is voluntary, many lobbyists will simply take advantage of the right to remain silent. Not only is this detrimental to basic transparency standards, it also gives an unfair advantage to firms which choose to boycott and which can promise client confidentiality, compared to those firms that have signed up and are therefore obliged to disclose all clients.

The case of Cabinet DN underlines the urgency of moving towards a mandatory lobby register.

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