Visit Brussels – the heart of lobbying

Have you noticed the new VisitBrussels promotional video campaign springing up around the city in the last couple of weeks? So far, we've spotted it at Gare du Midi and Place Flagey. Among the glossy photos and promises of fun-filled weekends, is the following image:

It's bizarre to think that these particular statistics would encourage anyone to come to Brussels. There again, as Brussels gains parity with Washington DC as the lobbying capital of the world, perhaps it is not surprising that VisitBrussels aims to induce yet more lobbyists, with their generous expense accounts, to visit.

But what is more interesting is where do these figures actually come from?

Corporate Europe Observatory has contacted VisitBrussels by phone and email, but so far they've been unable to confirm the source of their figures. In particular, it would be interesting to know where the claim of 6000 accredited lobbyists comes from.

The register of European Parliament access pass holders numbers 3478 lobbyists, not 6000. A look at the Commission/ Parliament lobby transparency register shows that 4415 organisations are listed. But this register is not mandatory and does not require organisations to list their lobbyists by name (although this is good practice that CEO adopts for its own registration). Organisations are invited to give an overall number of staff employed who undertake lobbying activities, yet no guidance is given on how this should be calculated. As a result, the register cannot be the last word on the numbers of individual lobbyists active in Brussels.

Whatever the true figure, the VisitBrussels video does help to demonstrate the huge gap between the total number of active lobbyists and the number who are transparent about their lobbying activities. There remains a major problem with the lobby register as certain categories of organisations, notably think-tanks and law firms, continue to boycott it, arguing (wrongly) that they do not conduct lobbying activities. Other lobby organisations do register but substantially under-report their spending on lobbying activities, adding to the opacity of lobbying in Brussels.

Mind you, the Commission and Parliamentary authorities do not make life easy for those who do register. At least one NGO was temporarily de-registered the other week, not through any fault of their own, but because of a glitch in the register's electronic system.

But back to VisitBrussels. CEO is also interested in their 25 000 figure. For a long time, commentators in the Brussels bubble have talked about 15 000 – 20 000 lobbyists here, which is calculated from figures contained in a 2003 European Parliament report. But no one in Brussels would doubt that in the eight years since, an increasing number of lobbyists have focussed their efforts at the EU institutions as more and more policy decisions and legislation originates at the European level.

Last week CEO launched a new guide to lobbying in Brussels - the Lobby Planet; we refer to 15 000 – 30 000 lobbyists active in Brussels. Of course it is hard to be precise about this, but reports earlier this year talked about 30 000 lobbyists currently accessing the the European Parliament every year.

So all in all, we conclude that VisitBrussels could be under-stating the real number of lobbyists active in Brussels, but over-stating the numbers who have officially registered.

Perhaps its another image from the promo video which best sums up the overall situation of lobbying in Brussels:

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