Wanted: Full lobby transparency now!

Transparency International recently said “One third of the entries [in the EU lobby transparency register] are inaccurate to say the least; some are outright meaningless. It is crazy stuff”. That very much fits with the view of the Alliance for lobbying transparency and ethics regulation (ALTER-EU) and we recently launched a campaign to demand Full lobby transparency now!

On paper, the EU lobby register might seem rather good. It is a joint initiative of the European Commission (the EU's executive) and the European Parliament and to date features more than 8000 registered organisations. It covers all categories of lobbyist, provides a comprehensive definition of lobbying ('interest representation' in EU-speak), and asks lobby consultancies and law firms to declare clients and the value of their lobby work. You can check out the register or visit LobbyFacts which is a data-crunching tool based on the EU register.

The EU register is certainly better than the recently-launched UK lobby register which is next to useless, providing very limited information on lobby consultancies, but no obligations to sign up for businesses, NGOs or unions conducting lobbying.

Nonetheless, there are major problems with the EU lobby register, including too many inaccurate entries. Problems range from the mild (lobbyists registering in the wrong category), to the serious (not listing lobby issues worked on), to the really significant (not fully listing lobby clients or under-reporting on financial lobby spend).

ALTER-EU considers the under-reporting of lobby expenditure to be so serious that earlier this week it sent complaints to the EU lobby register's secretariat regarding five major corporate players at the EU level, explaining why we suspect their entries do not accurately reflect the organisations' full lobby costs.

The AeroSpace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD), which represents some of Europe's biggest arms manufacturers, at the time of our complaint, declared 14.5 full-time lobby staff and 12 pass-holders with the European Parliament. It has a central Brussels office, sits on a range of official Commission groups which provide 'expert' advice, and meets regularly with MEPs and the Commission. And yet, for 2014, it declared lobby costs of €9999. Surely this is implausible.

Similarly, the European Round Table of Industrialists is a very influential lobby group which brings together 50 chief executives of major EU multinationals. At the time of our complaint, it declared at least two lobbyists and a central Brussels office. Previously it declared lobby costs of €700,000 – €800,000; now it only declares €9999.  

We also complained about Cisco, the IT company, which also declared annual lobby costs of €9999. Following our complaint, its register entry has now been updated to show lobby spend of €900,000 - €999,999, a 90 fold increase!

Clearly the data in the EU lobby register is not sufficiently high quality to provide an accurate snapshot of lobbying in Brussels, a place commonly considered to be second only to Washington DC for lobbying. Only a handful of staff work in the secretariat to run the register, and that is not enough to run adequate data checks.

Furthermore, the register is not legally-binding and this means that the secretariat lacks the powers to properly sanction misleading entries. Too many companies conducting EU lobbying are not signed up and law firms conducting lobbying on behalf of clients have been especially reluctant, even though the Brussels' EU quarter is full of prestigious-looking legal offices.

The Full lobby transparency now! campaign demands the introduction of a high-quality, legally-binding EU lobby register, and we are working with partners across the Europe, including Unlock Democracy and Spinwatch in the UK, to demand far greater lobby transparency in member states too. Recently, over 100 civil society organisations signed an open letter to echo our demands.

Every day, our politicians and officials in Brussels, London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast, make laws or policies which affect our daily lives, and they do so after discussions with lobbyists. Surely it is not too much to expect to know who these lobbyists are, who they work for, how much they spend, and what laws and initiatives they are working on?

Guest blogger Vicky Cann Lobbycracy campaigner from Corporate Europe Observatory