How to close the door on repressive regime lobbying
The Qatargate scandal reveals the shortcomings of lobbying regulation in the EU institutions. Now is the time to act!
The arrest of several current and former members of the European Parliament and of people from other organisations in connection with a bribery scandal linked to Qatari regime lobbying (and to Morocco), is another wake-up call. Earlier this year, bans were imposed on lobbyists working for Russia, a move that should have been taken a long time ago. It is long past time when the EU institutions in general, and the European Parliament in particular, should face up to the facts: the door to repressive regime lobbying must be closed now, not through panicky interim measures, or on a case by case basis, but through robust, permanent rules to detect and prevent such interference.
Since 2015, Corporate Europe Observatory has pushed for tighter rules to prevent repressive regimes from walking the corridors of power in the EU institutions unhindered, often in coalition with many other organisations. Yet, little has been achieved, due to the intransigence of politicians and their preference for a largely weak, voluntary and self-policing approach. A case in point is the current negotiations between the institutions on an “independent ethics body”, which is set to become a futile exercise with little or nothing gained.
In that sense, the current lobbying and bribery scandal is not surprising. Leeway for repressive regime lobbying has always been there. And in the case of Qatar the risk has been exacerbated by the current inflation and energy crisis. Powerful forces are on the move in the EU to improve relations with the oil and gas rich Arab nation, an example of which is the proposal to grant Qatari citizens visa-free travel to the EU, due to Qatar’s new status as an important “economic partner” for the European Union, “in particular in the area of energy”.
A robust lobby transparency system requires a plethora of well-enforced measures to protect democratic decision-making, most if not all of which are well known to EU parliamentarians and Commission officials, in that they have been proposed before – or they are part of the rulebook elsewhere. In the US, for instance, foreign governments and their lobby representatives are required to publish full contracts including finances and work undertaken. Failure to do so is a legal offence.
Hopefully, this new wake-up call will be the final straw. If so, the following should be the first steps.
1. A wake-up call for the European Parliament - reforms needed urgently
- Lobby transparency standards should not just be mandatory but harmonised across all EU institutions. The European Parliament, in particular, is lagging behind. Among the steps that need to be taken by the European Parliament is to oblige all MEPs to publish basic information about meetings with lobbyists and a ban on meetings with any unregistered lobbyists. The lobby transparency rules should also be extended to all officials in the Commission who meet with lobbyists.
- The European Parliament should urgently develop clear rules for the “other unofficial groupings” referred to in its Rules of Procedure, including so-called friendship groups. These should require transparent publication of members, funders, organisers, and activities. Repressive regimes should not be able to directly or indirectly fund these groups’ work; nor should they fund the work of MEPs, or of EU or national political parties, including their offices or overseas trips and hospitality.
- Allegations of bribery involving huge sums of cash should be a reminder of the need to tighten financial rules in the European Parliament. This must include far stronger restrictions on MEP’s second jobs, a ban on donations to MEPs and political parties from non-EU countries, and strong whistleblower protections.
- Too many former politicians and officials have taken lucrative jobs with corporations or other organisations closely associated with repressive regimes. This revolving door must be blocked at the EU and member state level on the grounds of conflicts of interest and political integrity. A lengthy and well-enforced cooling off period for former MEPs is a matter of urgency.
2. The register: lobbying transparency must help detect risks and prevent manipulation of decision-making
- The EU Transparency Register has a long way to go still. The only real sanction is the suspension of lobbyists, meaning that they would not be able to meet the top level Commission officials or have an EP access pass. This power is too weak, and is rarely used in any case. Instead the register should become legally-binding, which would enable fines to be levied and even cases to be prosecuted in the worst cases of wrong-doing, with tougher and better-resourced powers of audit and investigation for the Joint Transparency Register Secretariat. To protect democracy from harmful interference, strong pro-active investigatory and sanctions powers are needed that are comparable to those the European prosecutors office has for fighting financial fraud.
- If ‘intermediary’ lobbyists (including lobby consultancies and law firms) fail to disclose up-to-date client and financial information, there should be tough sanctions.
- The EU register should require the disclosure and publication of all lobby contracts and financial information coming from third country governments.
- A legally-binding register would also enable sanctions against those outside the register. In this most recent scandal, investigations are ongoing into an unregistered NGO in Brussels with close political links.
- The recent reform of the EU register involved a half-hearted and in some regards backwards attempt at reform of the financial declaration requirements. All registrants should once again have to declare an annual EU lobby spend and think tanks should be explicitly required to publish a list of all their funders (including income from non-EU governments) and the sums involved.
- Lobby consultancies or other private firms that represent regimes in breach of human rights, or that engage in online, data-driven disinformation campaigns on behalf of third country governments with the aim of influencing EU officials and citizens, should be removed from the register and barred from meetings with public officials. This can be implemented by expanding the definition of ethical behaviour in the code of conduct attached to the EU’s lobbying register.
- Member states should also implement legally-binding lobby registers to cover national lobbying activities, including of their own officials operating within the EU institutions.