Time for Commissioner Šefčovič to get tough on secretive lobbying lawyers
European Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič made some remarkable statements in a hearing in the European Parliament last week. In response to questions from MEPs about the ongoing review of the EU’s voluntary Transparency Register for lobbyists, Mr Šefčovič expressed concern about the growing presence of US law firms in Brussels, who are expanding their lobbying presence as a result of the EU-US trade negotiations (also known as TTIP) that were launched this summer.
In October, the New York Times published an in-depth article on the Brussels lobbying of US law firms such as Covington & Burling, Hogan Lovells and Baker Botts. The article describes how these firms are lobbying on behalf of large US-based multinationals to weaken EU environment and health standards, and how they have hired several former Commission officials while refusing to join the EU’s voluntary lobby register. These law firms see the EU-US trade talks, which aim to ‘harmonise’ regulatory systems on both sides of the Atlantic, as “a potential business bonanza” that will create “a huge wave of lucrative lobbying and legal work”, the New York Times reported. The article correctly points out that the law firms are taking advantage of weak transparency and ethics rules in Brussels. Šefčovič told the New York Times that he was “considering writing a letter to the law firms that are ignoring the register”, to push them to comply. Six weeks later he told MEPs that he would contact the US law firms to ask why they are not registered in Brussels when they are signed up to the US lobby register. But isn’t it time for some more determined action?
In the US, the refusal of law firms to sign up to a voluntary lobby transparency register sparked the decision to move to a mandatory lobby transparency register in the mid-1990s. After more than five years of voluntary lobby disclosure in the EU, most law firms involved in lobbying stay out of the register. The time for friendly letters to law firms should be over by now, and the EU should follow the lessons learned in the US. Moving to mandatory lobbying disclosure would be the only logical outcome of the current review of the register. Establishing a mandatory register will take time, but in the meantime there are a number of easy steps the Commission can take to raise the costs of not being in the EU Transparency Register. For example, why is Šefčovič not instructing Commission officials to make life harder for law firms involved in lobbying which are boycotting the Transparency Register, by refusing meetings with lobbyists representing these law firms and not accepting speaking invitations from unregistered firms?
An example is the “EU briefing on TTIP” for members of Amcham, the lobby group of US multinationals in Europe, that takes place tomorrow morning (10 December), sponsored and hosted by Clearly Gottlieb at their Brussels office. Among the speakers are Denis Redonnet, announced as the European Commission’s “chief communicator on the TTIP”. Gottlieb is a US law firm with major lobbying operations in Washington DC; its turnover from lobbying for industry clients was US$2,290,000 in the peak year of 2009. This year the firm has reported lobby earnings of US$510,000 so far in the mandatory US register, with Citigroup and the Institute of International Bankers as its biggest clients. Gottlieb’s Brussels office is not in the EU’s Transparency Register, so it does not disclose the size of its lobbying activities in Brussels and who it is lobbying for. But tomorrow’s event is clearly an activity that falls under the register’s definition of lobbying. Sending a high-level Commission official to speak at an event of an unregistered US law firm involved in lobbying gives completely the wrong signal.