Another year without real transparency

The Transparency Register has not been the success the Commission claims it is. In a recent article in the European Voice (“A year of living transparently”, 21-27 June), Maroš Šefcovic, the European commissioner for administration, describes the Transparency Register as “a great success” and highlights it as proof of the EU institutions’ efforts to be “as transparent as possible”.

The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) – of which Corporate Europe Observatory is a part – recently published an analysis of the quantity and quality of the registrations. Our conclusion was not as cheerful as the commissioner’s. The register is very far from giving a full and accurate picture of the lobbying activities in Brussels. Lobbyists do not take it seriously and many continue to boycott it.

Voluntary approach will never be effective

The commissioner says the voluntary approach is “by far the simplest and most effective means of keeping track of lobbying activities”. Simple as it may be, it is not effective at all if the aim is to provide a tool that allows for the effective monitoring of lobbying.

A great number of law firms that lobby (which are notorious for their opposition to transparency) are absent from the register. More than 120 enterprises active in lobbying have not registered either. And let us be clear: these are not just any company, but big players such as Deutsche Bank, Monsanto, Goldman Sachs or Apple. So there is still a lot going on in the shadows.

Regarding mandatory disclosure, Mr Šefčovič resorts to the stale argument of the lack of a legal basis. In fact, this is a matter of political will, rather than of legal bounds. There are possibilities that could be considered, like an inter-institutional agreement, as proposed by the European Parliament in a resolution in 2008.

If the Commission takes the initiative now, mandatory registering could be achieved in two or three years’ time. In any case, registration should be a requirement for lobbyists who wish to have regular access to European politicians and officials.

Reliability at risk

Furthermore, the register is littered with inaccurate data, misleading entries and blatant attempts to hide the real nature of lobbying activities (hence the title of our analysis: ‘dodgy data’). Many registrants fail to reveal what topics they have lobbied on, on whose behalf and with what budget.

The financial disclosure figures, essential to get a sense of the volume of lobbying, often appear to be inaccurate or misleading: in fact, more than 50 registrants claim to spend less than €1 on lobbying a year. The highest lobbying expenditure for a company in Brussels is declared by the American camera-equipment producer Panavision, which declares spending €35million. This is more than ExxonMobil, Shell and GDF Suez combined, which seems rather unrealistic.

Last year, ALTER-EU members objected to Shell’s declared lobby expenditure, considering it to be unrealistically low. The European Commission rejected this, but shortly after, Shell adjusted its entry (it increased tenfold, from €400,000 to €4 million).

The Commission says that it does checks on the data in the register but it seems clear that they do not have the capacity and perhaps the technology to really be able to verify the data in the way that is needed.

With all its shortcomings, the register is still a long way off from being a useful tool which would effectively monitor lobbying in Brussels. The conclusion is inescapable: if the Commission, Parliament and Council are committed to lobbying transparency, mandatory registering is unavoidable and urgent action is needed, including more rigorous checks to identify those that currently make a mockery out of “living transparently”.

Written by Koen Roovers (ALTER-EU) and Ester Arauzo (Corporate Europe Observatory)

This article is a longer version of the letter “Transparency list is being abused” published in The European Voice, on 28 June 2012