Wednesday, 26 October 2011

European Public Affairs Awards Showcase Worst Lobbyists?

Voting closes today for the European Public Affairs Awards, the self-congratulatory awards organised by Brussels lobby consultancy firms and their lobby groups EPACA and SEAP.

Categories for the EPA Awards include 'Consultancy of the year', 'Rising Star of the Year' and 'Think-tank of the Year. As in previous years, it is astonishing to see that the EPA award organisers have shortlisted several nominees that would fit much better as candidates for the Worst EU Lobbying Awards.

There's no lack of examples of dubious lobbying undertaken by global lobby consultancy giants of Burson-Marsteller, Edelman or APCO, but the example that stands out this year is Aspect Consulting. Aspect is one of three nominees to win the 'Consultancy of the year' award and an Aspect lobbyist is nominated as 'Consultant of the year'. Aspect was nominated for the Worst Lobbying Award a few years ago and despite being an active player in EU lobbying, the company continues to boycott the EU lobby transparency register. Indeed just last week The Guardian exposed Aspect Consulting for its role in assisting biotech lobby group EuropaBio in preparations for a public relations offensive to overcome public opposition to GM food. The plan was to recruit high-profile "ambassadors" to lobby EU decision-makers on GM policy. Leaked documents show Aspect Consulting claiming to have "had interest" from Sir Bob Geldof; the chancellor of Oxford University and BBC Trust chairman, Lord Patten; former Irish EU commissioner and attorney general David Byrne, "potentially" the involvement of former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and writer and campaigner Mark Lynas. All the celebrities mentioned have since denied showing interest. UK MP Caroline Lucas described the lobbying efforts as “insidious behind-the-scenes manoeuvring”.

The winners of the European Public Affairs Awards will be announced on November 9th at an event in Brussels.

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Thursday, 20 October 2011

UK lobby scandal: lessons from Brussels

UK politics has over the last weeks been shaken by a lobbying scandal that led to the resignation of Defence Secretary Liam Fox. Fox allowed a close friend, Adam Werrity, access to government meetings at the highest level. There are strong indications that Werrity used his access to these meetings to promote the interests of undisclosed industry clients, likely including defence firms. Werrity acted as an advisor to Mr. Fox but had no official status whatsoever, which is a clear violation of the UK ministerial code.

The scandal has lead to wider questions being raised about Prime Minister Cameron's cabinet, who was elected on a platform that involved curbing the power of lobbyists. In particular it has led to renewed calls for introducing a statutory lobby transparency register. Such a register was part of the coalition`s June 2010 programme for government but appeared to have been stalled as a result of opposition from lobby consultancies.

Several Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have commented on the UK scandal. A fairly bizarre comment came from firebrand Tory MEP Roger Helmer who tweeted that the problem is not big business lobbying, but “those well-heeled, EU-Commission-funded environmental NGO”. It is hard to see how the UK scandal could lead to this conclusion! Liberal Democrat MEP Diana Wallis argued the UK could "learn important lessons” from the European Parliament and the commission regarding the introduction of a lobby register. "The European parliament now has a leading position amongst European national parliaments with its joint lobby register for the commission and parliament”, Wallis told Parliament magazine. "Alongside clarifying who they are and their policy interests, lobbyists also have to disclose an amount of financial information, although there is always room to develop this aspect further”, Wallis added.

The lessons to be learned from Brussels, however, are both positive and negative. Serious mistakes have been made by the EU institutions in the process of designing a lobby transparency system. The most fundamental mistake was to launch a register that is voluntary, making it optional for lobbyists to join or stay in the shadows. And instead of deciding upon a register that delivers a reliable and complete overview of who is lobbying and with which resources, EU decision-makers gave in to lobbying pressures from vested interests and created major loopholes. The implementation of the register and oversight was left to Commission officials with very limited political will to secure genuine and comprehensive transparency. The clear conclusion is that lobby registers should be designed to be mandatory from the start, with broad and clear disclosure requirements, alongside effective enforcement. Politicians should resist pressures from lobbyists to do something different.

But there are also lessons for Brussels to be learned from the UK. The Guardian newspaper this week reported that Cameron's ministers met with corporate representatives on 1537 occasions in the first 10 months of government. There were far less meetings with NGOs and trade unions, leading to the conclusion that corporate interests are given privileged access by the Cameron government. The Guardian analysis was made possible by a policy of pro-active transpareny introduced by the previous government. All UK departments are expected to publish online records of meetings with lobbyists. In practice there are numerous problems with the implementation of the policy (departments are too late with publishing the records, and some records are very imprecise), but it is clearly an important contribution to transparency around the role of lobbying in decision-making. The website whoslobbying.com makes the information available in a searchable format. The European Commission should introduce pro-active transparency around its meetings with lobbyists as soon as possible.

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Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Banker and MEP – an unhappy combination

In the latest dramatic episode in the escalating eurocrisis, the troubled Dexia bank has been dismantled and split up into smaller bits (including a large 'bad bank'), most of which have been nationalised and now belong to the French and Belgian governments. Dexia shares had dropped from 20 euro to less than one euro when trading was terminated last week.

In assessing the collapse of the bank, Belgian media have paid a lot of attention to the role of Jean-Luc Dehaene, the chair of Dexia's board. The veteran Christian Democrat politician, who is also a member of the European Parliament, became number two in the bank's leadership team after a previous almost-collapse in 2008. The Belgian government wanted Dehaene in the post to counter-balance Dexia's CEO Pierre Mariani, who is a close ally of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Newspaper commentators have concluded that Dehaene's performance as a banker has been a failure. While Dehaene initially expressed his intention to change Dexia, refocusing it on traditional consumer banking instead of the high-risk speculative banking which the bank had embraced before the financial crisis, there has been little to show for it in terms of real change. Dehaene repeatedly ran into controversy when he defended paying out large bonuses to the Dexia leadership, in a situation where the bank was clearly still in trouble.

Dehaene is a very busy man who, until recently, was also a board member of four other corporations. According to one newspaper, these jobs earned him 257 500 euros per year, on top of his salary as an MEP, which was estimated at 134 000 euros. In March this year Dehaene was reported to have resigned from board posts at AB InBev, Lotus Bakeries and Umicore, leaving him with the jobs at Dexia and biotech firm Thrombogenics.

Interestingly there has been little focus on Dehaene's job as a member of the European Parliament. Dehaene, a former prime minister of Belgium, was elected in 2004 and successfully ran for re-election in 2009. He clearly did not consider the job of MEP as incompatible with heading a large bank. Dehaene ranks among the least active MEPs in recent years, having drafted one Parliamentary report, given four plenary speeches and tabled just one question since 2009.

While the report and speeches were not on issues directly of interest to Dexia, Dehaene has on dozens of occasions voted on issues of interest to Dexia in the European Parliament's plenary sessions, such as on banking regulation and eurocrisis measures, including most recently the so-called 'six-pack' of measures that are likely to result in a deepening of austerity policies across Europe.

The conflicts of interest arising from a director of Dexia voting on these issues can only lead to the conclusion that MEPs should not have second jobs as bank directors. The case of Dehaene also shows that being an MEP should not be treated as a side-job.

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