Across Europe, efforts to promote lobbying transparency are coming up short. In both the U.K. and the EU, weak laws and reform efforts are failing to provide meaningful lobbying disclosure, leaving the public in the dark.
U.K. lobbying bill may restrict civil society campaigns
In the U.K., a lobbying law was recently passed despite widespread disapproval. While the law does create a new register of professional lobbyists, Tamasin Cave of Spinwatch noted that the registration process has two critical weaknesses. First, it is extremely narrow in scope, as only consultant lobbyists working for lobbying agencies must register. This means that lobbyists who work for major corporations or law firms can continue to operate in the shadows. Covering only consultant lobbyists employed by a lobbying agency addresses only the tip of the influence-peddling iceberg — leaving a majority of active lobbyists hidden from public scrutiny.
Second, information on a lobbyist’s goals and who they meet with will not be included in the disclosure process. A lobbyist must list their clients — but nothing more. Without information on lobbying contacts and objectives, lobbying disclosure provides little to no additional information on the policymaking process.
Many in Britain are up in arms about the new law, which disproportionately targets civil society and threatens the political rights of campaigners and advocates in its restrictions and rules on campaigning and advocacy. The new law, which has come to be referred to as the “gagging bill,” places new restrictions on the amount of money civil society organizations, charities and unions can spend in the run up to an election. These restrictions apply to all spending related to advocacy or campaigning, even if it is not in support of a candidate or political party. For example, if an advocacy organization wants to raise attention around a particular issue prior to an election, their ability to do so may be constricted. The law also introduces a host of regulatory burdens that may significantly limit the capacity of small nonprofits.
EU lobbying reform stalls with weak report
Meanwhile, in the EU a joint committee of the European Parliament and Commission was tasked with reviewing the lobbying registration process and making recommendations for the future of the register. ALTER-EU, a European civil-society coalition working on lobbying transparency, published a scorecard analyzing the recommendations and concluded that they were “hugely disappointing.”
While the Parliament stated its support for a mandatory register in the future, the Commission continues to withhold support for mandatory disclosure by active lobbyists. In light of this, movement on a mandatory lobbying registry is doubtful. The joint committee also failed to toughen the weak rules on noncompliance or to recommend any meaningful improvements to the broken financial disclosure system. If this report is any indication, more complete lobbying disclosure in the EU seems unlikely over the short term.
The recent actions of the U.K. and EU are discouraging. Now, there is even greater need for civil society organizations to fight for information about lobbyists that shape the policymaking process outside the realm of public scrutiny.