January 22, 2020
There is hardly a day when lobbying is not on the front page, and always with a negative connotation. Lobbyists can only be ‘bad’ because they express the voice of industry. The “good lobbyists”, on the other hand, are not really lobbyists since they represent civil society, an emanation of the “public interest.” None of this makes any sense.
In 1992 (28 years ago!) the European Parliament held its first hearing on the “representation of interests.” A great popular success and a room over-flowing with people. Which “interest representatives” were heard? A mixture of industries (myself for sugar) and NGOs (in particular the Eurogroup for Animal Welfare and the Euro Citizen Action Service).
Out of this public hearing came three conclusions: first, an affirmation of the “broadly positive role of lobbies”, then a statement that “industry, NGOs and local authorities are lobbies”, and finally that there is a need for regulation to “remedy corruption and theft of documents.” This allowed Mrs Dagmar Roth-Behrendt, one of the most experienced MEPs, to declare: “Distinguishing between good and bad lobbyists is irrelevant. The correct standard is professionalism.”
In 2015, during a second public hearing at the European Parliament on “Ethical questions regarding lobbying practices and transparency register”, the speakers did not call into question the three conclusions of the 1992 hearing. However, they added three extra recommendations: first, the need to create an independent supervisory authority; second, a systematic improvement of transparency throughout the institutional triangle; and third, a boosting of resources for OLAF and the Ombudsman.
Lobbying and governance are intimately linked
A comparison of the conclusions of the two public hearings clearly underscores the INSTITUTIONAL link between lobbying and EU governance. There is hardly a legislative or regulatory proposal that is not submitted to “interest representatives” via consultative groups or civil dialogue groups, or to the public via consultations. But more interesting is that the European Parliament, in its wisdom, believes that only enhanced transparency within the Institutions will limit the risk of abuse (corruption, document theft, etc.) and that bad practices will be better monitored and better sanctioned by strengthened action from OLAF and the Ombudsman.
Regulating European lobbying requires combining two pillars: a precise definition of what a lobbyist is and what his or her rights and obligations are; and the introduction of a high degree of accountability, transparency and integrity in the EU institutions. On this second point, the 2015 Parliament hearing indicated the way forward: “Oblige MEPs to disclose third party involvements in legislative activities; increase transparency during trilogues and conciliation procedures; and clarify rules regarding the use of external expertise and relations with third parties.” Personally, I would add a strong limitation on revolving doors. The problem is that there is no movement on any of these points.
Regarding the first pillar “What is a lobbyist?”, everything should be clear from the public hearings in 1992 and 2015: a lobbyist is an interest representative acting on behalf of an industry, NGO or local authority. But the recent trend in social networks that says “good lobbyists = NGOs” and “bad lobbyists = industry” requires a strengthening of the Transparency Register in order to avoid a situation where perfectly legitimate businesses or sectors are vilified, denounced, even prohibited from any contact with the Institutions, as we have seen repeatedly in recent months.
The Transparency Register: only a starting point
How many years did it take to make our poor Transparency Register obligatory? Obligatory it may be, but with exceptions, notably for lawyers – of which many have become lobbyists, due to the complexity of comitology and delegated acts. Once its scope has been finalised, we can say “A lobbyist is a person who has their name in the Transparency Register.” But this will not be enough because the Register is so imprecise: the definition of what has to be declared as “lobbying activity” is pure fantasy and often does not correspond to reality at all; no prior control is conducted; no sanction is applied, etc.
We can measure the importance of the issues. More transparency from the Institutions, more discipline from lobbyists: a kind of trade-off. But in reality, even more is needed. For the Institutions, they must re-think their relations with public opinion, ensuring more transparency, less interpretation of procedures and less “silo” management. For lobbyists, I would say: “take back control.” Let’s put our own house in order, let’s set rules and disciplines, taking lawyers as inspiration. If we wish to be respected, it is up to us to put forward at least a strict Code of Conduct, at best a kind of Professional Order of lobbyists and interest representatives. Part 2 of my article will be devoted to this idea.