http://euobserver.com/18/26695 by Leigh Phillips
As of Wednesday (4 September) - a day when across the Atlantic, Jack Abramoff, once one of Washington's most powerful lobbyists, was sentenced to four years in prison for his extensive corrupt practices - in Europe's capital, a total of 303 lobbying groups had filed with the public record of EU lobbyists, or "registry of interest representatives."
Campaigners for lobbying transparency in Europe have repeatedly argued that it is only because the US has a mandatory registry that characters such as Mr Abramoff - whose network of corruption has now delivered 13 guilty pleas from public officials and lobbyists - can be caught.
In Brussels, they warn, lobbying remains too shadowy an activity after the launch of a voluntary registry, which would never bring an Abramoff-style case to light.
A spokesperson for commission vice-president Siim Kallas, the commissioner responsible for administrative affairs, audit and anti-fraud, said the figure was not satisfactory.
"It is low," said spokesperson Valerie Rampi. "300 for the moment is not enough even though the summer period may have played a role."
Of the 300-odd on the public list, 126 trade associations representing groups of businesses and 56 NGOs make up the majority of those willing to sign on.
None of the major lobbying firms have registered, and only three think-tanks have done so.
"I do not see yet the big professional public relations consultancies, nor many law firms - only two have registered so far," Ms Rampi noted.
"However, I want to stress the importance of being cautious about the numbers that could be used to measure the 300 figure against," Ms Rampi said.
"The figure often quoted in the media of around 15,000 individual lobbyists is an external estimate, which the commission does not endorse," she added, pointing out that this is an estimate of the number of individuals, whereas the commission's register lists organisations.
Commissioner Kallas has however himself quoted the 15,000 figure on a number of occasions.
'More work than you'd imagine'
The European Public Affairs Consultancies Association (EPACA), the Brussels lobbyists' professional organisation, is to hold a members' meeting on 10 September to decide how to approach the registry.
Jose Lalloum, the president of EPACA, said the organisation has recommended to its members that they register by the end of the month.
However, it will still take some time, he warned: "There's more work than one imagines in complying with the registry. What counts as lobbying, what doesn't, making sure the client is okay with being registered and ensuring there isn't double counting [both the lobbyist and the group on whose behalf the lobbyist lobbies].
"The consultants are pretty clear on all of this, but the clients still need explained to them where lobbying starts and where lobbying stops."
One year's testing
The commission says it is to give lobbyists a year to demonstrate their transparency, while the EU executive "tests the technicalities" of the system to see if it is working.
Alter-EU, the coalition of NGOs, green groups, academics and trade unions that has campaigned for lobbying transparency, is concerned at how few large corporations have registered, as well as how they are reporting how much they spend on lobbying.
"There seems to be wide variation in their reported lobbying costs," Olivier Hoedeman of Alter-EU told EUobserver.
"Spanish telecoms firm Telefonica for example reports that its EU lobbying costs in 2007 were €950,000, while French car maker Renault says it spent between €200,000 and €250,000, and Air France-KLM reports between €50,000 and €100,000.
"Do these figures reflect real differences or are they just the result of the commission's failure to provide clear and unambiguous guidelines for calculating lobbying expenses?" he asked.
"Instead of improving lobbying transparency, the register appears to be creating confusion."
The coalition, which is itself a lobbyist organisation - albeit one that lobbies about lobbying - is currently drafting guidelines for its 160-odd members and other civil society groups on how to sign up to the registry.
Once they do so, they will also list the names of individual lobbyists and not just the organisation - something the commission backed down from demanding.
"Apart from fulfilling what the commission asks for, we will go much further and disclose much more, including names of our own lobbyists, this way showing that the commission's register should have been, but fails to do due to the lack of political will in the Berlaymont building."