January 22, 2020
Lobbying and governance, having a direct institutional link, are permanently interacting. There is no point in regulating lobbying without achieving a high degree of “responsibility, transparency and integrity” at the level of the EU Institutions. Having said that, the regulation of lobbying needs courage and persistence, as it requires a reshaping of outdated practices.
In 2015, the Czech Parliament commissioned me to do a study on lobbying regulation in the main industrialised countries. The results were illuminating. Alone the United States adopted a Disclosure Act in 1995, broadly strengthened in 2007 following the Abramoff scandal. This Disclosure Act introduced the most extreme transparency into the sphere of lobbying. Everything was made public: budgets, contacts, spending etc. The profession of “lobbyist” was defined according to strict criteria involving regular training, continuous controls (in particular from the public, with the entire daily life of lobbyists put online) and severe sanctions. This dimension of the American model, softened and more flexible, would be a useful reference point for the European Union. The private funding of political parties on the contrary would have to remain excluded.
The other “star pupils” were Canada and, to a lesser degree, the Netherlands and Germany. With France and the United Kingdom, the European Union found itself among the “bad pupils.” The Transparency Register does not clearly define what a lobbyist is, does not set down any competence criteria, and requires no training or even a clean criminal record. Very vague, it is neither credible nor reliable, and has proven very lenient with regard to revolving doors. Worse, it maintains a kind of “grey zone” between what is authorised and what is forbidden. The less public EU documents are, the greater this “grey zone” is. The need for transparency in all acts of the three Institutions and equal access to documents is arguably priority number one.
Quantitative or qualitative lobbying?
When the “good lobbyists” (NGOs) criticise the “bad lobbyists” (industry), they compare their respective number of contacts with the Institutions, especially the Commission. As NGOs regularly complain: “Industry has met the Commissioner 5 times, the Director General 10 times and the Head of Unit 25 times, this is not normal because we have only had one meeting with any of these.” In reality, industry lobbies are too numerous, too fragmented, too individualist while NGOs are strictly specialised, avoiding the excessive disparate contacts generated by the huge number of trade associations (e.g. there are more than 300 in the agri-food sector alone!). Leaving aside taboos, it must be said that NGOs are much better organised and more operational than the industry.
The same goes for communication. NGOs simplify to the extreme and are the masters of the punchline on social media. They are on the offensive, and industry is not equipped to respond. The stronger the attack, the less industry reacts. When it does react, it uses – on the defensive – the tools of yesteryear (position papers, letters, press releases).
Thus, two opposing worlds have been created, and the dialogue between them totally severed. This is a very bad thing. The first goal of a mandatory lobbying system should be first to bring everyone back around the same table.
For a future Professional Order of lobbyists, how do we choose the architect?
Three organisations can claim to take up the role of leader. First, there is SEAP (Society of European Affairs Professionals), composed of professional lobbyists, individually registered. Advantage: created 30 years ago, SEAP is considered by the Commission to be representative. Disadvantage: a limited number of members, not very visible (who has heard of them?), but growing sharply in terms of activity and proposals. Second, there is CEO, (Corporate Europe Observatory) a member of the Alter-EU platform. They are the opposite of SEAP: very visible, very vocal, very hostile to corporate lobbying, but strongly representative in the eyes of “civil society.” Third, EPACA (European Public Affairs Consultancies Association) fulfils a utilitarian, even “trade union”-type function for the benefit of European affairs consultants, but they are the practitioners of the European scene.
Operating in parallel, these three associations have to listen to each other, get to know each other and work together. It will be difficult, but in my view the contentious topics are outnumbered by the issues of common interest. Concerning methodology, perhaps it would be most suitable to use the conclusions of the various European Parliament hearings as a starting point. The first job should be to agree on the definition of the word “lobbyist” and on its positive place in EU governance. Then they can move on to setting out the obligations for lobbyists as well as the Institutions, which should not pose insurmountable problems.
The time is particularly ripe to embark upon this project, in the context of a positive institutional environment where the new Commission has recognised the need to improve day-to-day decision-making. In addition, the Conference on the Future of Europe, chaired by Guy Verhofstadt, will soon be launched. Both will obviously include a lobbying dimension, including the creation of an independent supervisory authority. This convergence of initiatives at the highest level is an opportunity for us and a means to move the noble profession of lobbying and interest representation from the “problem” category to the “solution” category.