Every now and then, a little light shines on the secretive world of political lobbying, and we catch a glimpse of what many assume is business as usual in the corridors of power. Recently in Luxembourg, the highest European court threw out an unfair dismissal case taken by disgraced ex-Commissioner John Dalli against the European Commission. This comes as the latest in a series of twists and turns in Europe’s biggest lobbying scandal yet. It has all the ingredients of a good lobbying scandal – secret meetings with go-betweens, an office burglary resulting in incriminating documents mysteriously going missing and even an alleged offer of a €60 million bribe. It might be considered Europe’s version of the Abramoff scandal.
Be it in Washington, Prague or London, such scandals or variations on the theme are found the world over, with unregulated secret relationships between lobbyists and public decision-makers having major influence over public policies. The resulting decisions affect each and every one of us and are often at odds with the public interest. It is little wonder that citizens are becoming more and more cynical about politics and politicians, to the extent that almost 60 percent of EU citizens believe their government is run by a few big interests. With each new scandal, the need for regulation of lobbying becomes all the more obvious.
Last month, Transparency International released a detailed report on this theme of lobbying in Europe. It is the first comprehensive assessment of lobbying across Europe. On the basis of a methodology comprised of 65 indicators, the report ranks 19 countries and three EU institutions in terms of their overall performance in safeguarding against undue influence and in promoting open and ethical lobbying. The research focused on Europe, but it would certainly be interesting and possible to compare with other jurisdictions, including the U.S. and Canada. Our hunch is that the U.S. would perform well on the registration of lobbying indicators, but would fall down when it comes to the thorny and critically important issue of regulating money in politics.
But, for now, back to Europe. The findings outlined in the report make for sobering reading. On average, European countries score just 31 out of a possible 100 points when it comes to safeguarding against undue influence in the policy process. Only seven of the 19 countries have a dedicated lobbying regulation. Many of these laws are not fit for purpose, a prime example being the U.K.’s controversial lobbying law that is estimated to cover only around 1 percent of the actual lobbyists plying their trade.
The top-scoring country is Slovenia, but it only just breaks the 50 percent mark — a long way from best practice. The relatively good score can be attributed to Slovenia’s dedicated lobbying regulation and robust rules that require public officials to report on contacts with lobbyists, which provides the public with important information about who is lobbying whom on what matters. Nevertheless, the system suffers from gaps in coverage as only professional lobbyists are required to register. This omits a wide range of actors seeking to influence public policy. In addition, implementation of the regulation has been lacking, with many public officials not reporting contacts and the agency responsible for oversight failing to issue penalties or sanctions.
The European Commission also scores relatively well for a number of reasons. The commission is covered by the EU Transparency Register, which has potential but is hampered by its voluntary nature and weak oversight mechanisms. Additionally, the new Juncker Commission has introduced promising proactive transparency measures, but has fallen short of calling for a mandatory legislative footprint, which would document all external input on each piece of legislation that goes through the institutions.
There are, however, some hints of light in this rather dark picture. An increasing number of countries, including Estonia, France, Italy and Lithuania, are signaling a willingness to tackle the issue, with proposals at various stages of development. Ireland has recently adopted the Regulation of Lobbying Act, which, despite its shortcomings, does raise the bar in terms of the quality of regulation in Europe. A growing number of professional lobbyists and corporates are committing to higher ethical standards in their interactions with government, and are, in fact, supportive of reforms; they recognize the moral imperative but also the benefits to reputation and the need for a level playing field. The recent developments in Brussels are also to be cautiously welcomed, as is ongoing work on an international legal instrument on lobbying at the Council of Europe.
For these efforts to be truly effective, a much more holistic approach is needed. Most existing efforts are too narrow in scope and do not take account of the broader three-pronged framework that TI advocates: building transparency, integrity and equality of access in lobbying. To seriously tackle the issue of undue influence, both governments and lobbyists must act. For governments, priorities should include strengthening lobbyist registers and introducing a legislative footprint to ensure full transparency of decision-making processes, as well as promoting diverse participation in public decision-making from individuals and groups with a range of perspectives. Meanwhile, lobbyists themselves must commit to carry out their work with integrity. Once rules are adopted, it is, of course, essential that they are enforced and that there are meaningful sanctions for unethical behavior. Only then can public policy again serve the public good, citizens can start to recover their trust in government, and the term “lobbying” can be associated with participatory democracy — rather than scandal and corruption.
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