EU lobbying standards: Devil in the details
When in July 2014 Jean-Claude Juncker said, "I am also committed to enhanced transparency when it comes to contact with stakeholders and lobbyists... I will therefore propose an inter-institutional agreement (IIA) to parliament and council to create a mandatory lobby register covering all three institutions", many, including the alliance for lobby transparency and ethics regulation (ALTER-EU), were pleased that the new commission would introduce a mandatory lobby transparency register.
Moving from the current voluntary system to a mandatory one is the only way to tackle the flaws in the current register, namely that many lobby organisations continue to boycott it, that the register is full of inaccurate or misleading information, and that there are no effective sanctions for false reporting.
"Only a mandatory EU lobby register which is backed by full legislation will ensure that lobbyists who fail to register, who provide false information about their activities, or who break the other rules of the transparency register can be effectively sanctioned"
The commission has also made further recent announcements that commissioners will not meet with unregistered lobbyists. This is the kind of incentive which can help to boost the rates of participation in the register in the short term. The commission should urgently extend these incentives-to-register to cover lobby meetings held by all commission staff and ensure that non-registered lobbyists are forbidden to join official advisory groups or to hold events on commission premises.
However, these short term incentives will only get us so far, and the register itself needs additional reforms ensure that all those who lobby the EU institutions actually sign up. However, a closer look at Juncker's July 2014 statement showed that the devil was in the detail.
The commission's proposal to set up an inter-institutional agreement to back a mandatory lobby register will have very little additional impact on the current voluntary system because it will not be legally-binding on lobbyists.
Only a mandatory EU lobby register which is backed by full legislation will ensure that lobbyists who fail to register, who provide false information about their activities, or who break the other rules of the transparency register can be effectively sanctioned. In fact, it would be misleading to call the transparency register mandatory if it is adopted via a non-legislative agreement.
In April 2014 the European parliament called for the commission, "to submit, by the end of 2016, a legislative proposal for the establishment of a mandatory register". ALTER-EU very much agrees with this position, as does the European ombudsman, who has also publicly called for the register to be adopted via a legislative proposal.
Of course there will be opposition to such legislation from vested interests opposed to greater transparency. It is important that the decision-making process around the new lobby register be as open and participative as possible.
Previous inter-institutional agreements, which tend to be negotiated behind closed doors, have enabled lobby consultancies to successfully demand to only report financial information through large bandwidths, therefore masking how much they received for lobbying on behalf of specific clients, while think-tanks received an exemption from having to disclose their precise funding sources. Hopefully a legislative proposal will minimise the risk of such negotiated loopholes.
Next week the commission will publish its work plan for 2015; it needs to include concrete legislation for a mandatory lobby register. This is the only way to ensure that we can accurately and reliably know who these lobbyists are, who they are working for, how much they spend, and what specific dossiers they lobby on.