Last week, the European Commission revealed new rules that will attempt to make EU lobbying more transparent. Beginning December 1, top-level EU officials will be required to publicly declare their meetings with lobbyists. The announcement comes in the wake of scandal for the EU’s new President, Jean-Claude Juncker. Just days after taking office on November 1, documents were leaked alleging secret tax deals in Luxembourg with big corporations that occurred during Juncker’s term as prime minister of the small Western European country.
Though the details of Luxembourg’s tax scandal call into question the trustworthiness of the new EU leadership, any policy that sheds light on the lobby industry could represent a positive step forward in Europe, where there are currently estimated to be over 30,000 lobbyists — but exact numbers, contacts and identities remain mired in secrecy. The EU created its first voluntary lobbying registry in 2011, but without a mandatory requirement to register, the details in the database are sparse. So far, only about 6,500 entities have disclosed any information on their lobbying activities.
Earlier this year, Jean-Claude Juncker made a public commitment to increasing transparency in the influence of lobbying in Brussels, including the implementation of a mandatory register. The most recently introduced rules would require Commissioners, their Cabinets, and the Directors-General of the Commission services to publish the dates, locations and names of organisations and individuals met and the topics discussed.
Information about lobby contacts and meeting details can play a crucial role in increasing transparency around the influence industry, through empowering watchdogs and citizens to connect the dots as legislation is being debated, tweaked and passed. And although the best way to ensure comprehensive and effective oversight is to require mandatory disclosure from both public officials and lobbyist groups, we believe that requiring top-level officials to disclose their contacts and meetings might have some positive effects in itself. First, it demonstrates public institutions leading by example, which could be a crucial step in creating a culture of transparency and restoring trust in public institutions. Second, the disclosure of contacts and meetings could help shine a light on unregistered lobbyists and put significant pressure on top-level EU officials to meet with registered groups only. Third, once we have a more complete picture of lobbyists via a mandatory register, the availability of the two different data sources will significantly increase public scrutiny and oversight through potential comparison.
However, watchdogs are concerned that the most recent announcement is simply a surface-level PR-exercise designed to alleviate public fears about secret influence permeating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between Europe and the U.S. The press release is still vague on the exact parameters, but concerns have arised over the scope of the rule which is limited to the Commissioner, the Cabinet and Director General and therefore likely doesn’t apply to those most heavily lobbied on TTIP (and most other issues). There are other red flags indicating that the rules may just be a distraction from the real secrecy in TTIP as there will be no public release of the draft negotiations, a necessary step in helping stakeholders determine whether the negotiations are being carried out in the public interest.
We can only hope that the most recently introduced rules for disclosure are part of a holistic effort by the new administration and only a first step to make EU lobbying more accountable. Going forward, proper implementation will play a crucial role: the data should be released in a timely and accessible fashion and accompanied by proper oversight. For more details on how Sunlight’s vision for increasing transparency around lobbying, please see our Lobbying Disclosure Guidelines.