A profession emerges from shadowy world

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Series Details 30.08.07
Publication Date 30/08/2007
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Two MEPs discuss EU lobbying.

Monica Frassoni

Lobbying is an accepted and indispensable part of policy-making in any modern democratic system. In the same way, reliable lobbyists can be an invaluable source of information for those involved in making legislation.

With thousands of lobbyists and representatives of other interest groups seeking to influence the EU legislative process, lobbying at EU-level is clearly on a larger scale. Given its size and the diversity of interests in the EU, this is not necessarily surprising. What is surprising, however, is the largely unregulated environment in which these lobbyists operate and their dogged resistance to prevent attempts to make their activities more transparent.

The voluntary nature of the lobbyist register being proposed by Siim Kallas, the anti-fraud commissioner, together with the complete failure to address the key issues of privileged access through high-level groups and revolving doors, makes the European Commission’s transparency initiative a relatively blunt tool. Yet even this overly soft approach has provoked howls of indignant opposition from lobbyists. This resistance can only exacerbate existing public suspicion regarding the perceived ‘shadowy’ nature of lobbying in Brussels.

The current sticking point is the disclosure of information on how lobbying activities are funded. While it is certainly a positive development that lobbyists are being pressured to provide information about their financial background, the voluntary nature of the lobbyists’ register will clearly limit the effectiveness of this initiative. Those who have an interest in not disclosing such information will seek means to avoid doing so.

The voluntary or self-regulatory approach has consistently failed to achieve results when it has been employed by the Commission (the glaring example in the present context being on vehicle emissions). In order to be successful, this register must be compulsory with clear rules on financial disclosure. Clear and unequivocal rules are desirable both for the overall goal of transparency and for the lobbyists to whom they would apply, creating a level playing-field. If there is nothing to hide, then where is the problem either for the lobbying firms or for their clients? If there is something to hide, then every effort should be made to uncover what that is.

Such a system can only work if clear and strong sanctions are included in case of incorrect registration or breach of the code of conduct, which is to accompany the lobbyists’ register. Unfortunately the current proposal lacks teeth, particularly when compared with other systems (eg, in the US).

But the transparency initiative must not merely be limited to a register and code of conduct. The Commission has, as yet, made no attempt to address the problem of privileged access of some private interests vis-à-vis the institutions, for example through setting guidelines for so-called high-level groups. These unaccountable policy advisory bodies seem to have considerable influence on policy-making at the pre-legislative stage. If the Commission is to persist with these groups, their purpose should be clearly defined and their composition balanced, while the outcomes and the underlying processes have to be transparent.

The failure to mention the problem of revolving doors is also a massive oversight in the light of recently publicised cases, such as the issue of Commission officials working on the REACH regulation who had previously worked for the chemicals industry. Of course, this does not mean that former industry employees should not be permitted to work for the Commission or vice-versa, but there need to be clear rules governing the circumstances under which this can occur.

Non-governmental organisations representing general interests (environment, human rights) have had a much more limited platform and influence than big business in Brussels. A more comprehensive disclosure of financial sources and stricter control as regards who the real beneficiaries of lobbying activities are would help level this playing-field. This is something the Greens have long pushed for. In the 1990s Greens/EFA co-president Alex Langer, who also drafted the first Parliament report on lobbying, proposed dividing lobbies into profit-based and non-profit organisations, giving them different status and access accordingly. Perhaps this concept should be considered anew.

  • Italian Green MEP Monica Frassoni is co-chairwoman of the Greens/European Free Alliance in the European Parliament.

Alexander Stubb

The European Parliament was a lonely place in the 1970s. It had virtually no powers and perhaps as a consequence no friends. At the time MEPs were happy if a lobbyist would pop by for a chat. All doors were open.

Times have changed. Today the Parliament is an equal legislator with the Council of Ministers and consequently our corridors are packed with professionals wanting to influence decision-making.

In the 1970s there were around 400 lobbying organisations based in Brussels. Now the EU capital is the home of some 15,000 lobbyists. They represent more than 2,500 organisations, ranging from in-house company lobbyists to non-governmental organisations (NGOs), from international organisations and think-tanks to law firms.

In addition, there are around 170 embassies and more than 200 regional offices representing specific national or regional interests in Brussels. To put it simply, if you are not represented in Brussels, you are probably not doing your job properly.

Lobbying does not always have a positive connotation. Many see lobbying as some kind of shady activity in a smoke-filled room. This description is unfair and outdated.

Most lobbyists are experts in their field, representing interests in a professional manner. Of course you might not agree on what they all say, but democracy is all about competing views, pluralism. It is up to the decision-maker to listen and draw his or her own conclusions.

There is a misconception that money equals influence. NGOs with limited resources can be as influential as rich multinational companies. Lobbying on the REACH chemicals regulation or software patents, for instance, was much more influential from the public than the private side.

Some lobbyists spend a lot of money without any noticeable influence.

For most politicians, power lies in the argument, not in whom and how much money is behind it. My starting point is simple: all lobbyists should be treated equally. Greenpeace and McDonalds represent their own interests. A public interest claim is not automatically better than a private interest claim.

Lobbying will be one of the hottest topics in Brussels during the coming months. The European Commission is in the process of setting new rules for lobbyists. The Parliament is also drawing up a report on lobbying.

The assembly has an extensive register of lobbyists, mainly for security purposes. They all have to sign a code of conduct, which gives them entry to the buildings. Before every meeting the lobbyist tells the MEP who he or she is representing.

The Commission has no such register, but all of that is about to change. The key debate in the Commission is whether the register should be voluntary or mandatory, and what information should be required.

In my opinion the Commission should avoid creating a system which is too much like its equivalent in the US. We do not need to go overboard. In the US lobbying is directly linked to political decision-making through funding. In Europe there is no such link. EU lobbying is not US lobbying.

Lobbying is all about interest and information. In Brussels, European commissioners, backed by thousands of civil servants and advisers, are the champions of information. Ministers in the Council form their positions with the help of permanent representations and ministries.

But a member of the European Parliament is less lucky. He or she has to survive with a few assistants and civil servants. No matter how talented they might be, an MEP is also dependent on the information provided by lobbyists. Good lobbyists can be a vital source of information, although bad lobbyists will receive short shrift from most MEPs.

Lobbying rules in the Parliament have worked in the past. There is no reason why they should not work in the future for the other institutions too. Perhaps lobbying rules should follow Aristotle’s golden rule: "Nothing in excess except moderation."

  • Finnish centre-right MEP Alexander Stubb is vice- chairman of the Parliament’s internal market committee and rapporteur on lobbying in the constitutional affairs committee.

Two MEPs discuss EU lobbying.

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