A few days from now it will be two years since the European Commission launched its voluntary lobby register. The critique of the shortcomings of the register will be well known to readers of this blog. Only a minority of Brussels-based lobbies are registered and the data of those who have joined are often unreliable (some over-estimate their lobby spending, most under-report). The register fails to show who is lobbying, on whose behalf, on which issues and with which budgets.
Take the example of the European Parliament's vote on food labeling last week, which was preceded by an avalanche of corporate lobbying. The biggest player in this lobbying offensive, food industry lobby umbrella CIAA, is nowhere to be found in the register, simply because they have chosen not to register. The voluntary register does nothing to throw light on the lobbying around this important matter.
But more interesting than listing yet more examples of the obvious failure of the voluntary register is perhaps the question whether there is any hope of progress. And yes, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Commissioner Sefcovic and a delegation of four MEPs last month started talks about a new joint Commission-Parliament register. There seems to be consensus that this new transparency register will be directly connected with the Parliament's access pass system. The access passes are popular, if not indispensable, among Brussels-based lobbyists as they allow permanent entry to the Parliament's buildings. Linking the passes to registration could therefore drastically increase the share of Brussels lobbies that commit to lobby transparency.
It is however too early celebrate. The history of the Commission's register shows a pattern of giving in to lobbying pressure for exemptions and other loopholes. Corporate lobbyists' club SEAP is lobbying against transparency becoming a condition for Parliament access passes. SEAP claims transparency conditions would be unfair for those who are not registered. Lobby consultancies' coalition EPACA has been quiet for a very long time in the debate about the shape of the lobby transparency register, but may also be active behind the scenes.
But even in the best case scenario that Commission and MEPs stand firm on this point, the register suffers from other serious shortcomings that need to be solved if it is to be of any real value. The disclosure requirements are full of loopholes, especially when it comes to lobby expenditure information, and the Commission seems unwilling to go beyond the minor changes it announced in October 2009. The creation of the new joint register is expected to take another year.