Response to EPACA

EPACA, the association of lobbying consultancies, today launched a new round in its campaign to undermine the reputation of lobby watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), in what looks like a desperate attempt to fight tighter transparency and ethics rules for EU lobbyists.

Last week, EPACA went to the media with the news that it had submitted a complaint against Corporate Europe Observatory for alleged breach of the European Commission’s Code of Conduct for Interest Representatives. CEO published its response to this ill-founded complaint. EPACA has now issued a statement which contains several factual errors and misrepresentations that need to be set straight.

  1. Firstly, EPACA continues to misrepresent what happened when a journalist who is working part time for CEO contacted Burson-Marsteller with a simple question about the company’s lobby work for the previous Bulgarian government. EPACA claims that our staff member tried to hide his affiliation to CEO when he contacted Burson-Marsteller and that the work he does for CEO is not journalism. Both suggestions are misleading and wrong. As shown by the email correspondence published on the CEO website, our staff member has been completely open about the fact that he was preparing an article for Corporate Europe Observatory. He is a registered journalist and was doing investigative work, preparing a longer article on lobbying on behalf of third country governments. This journalistic piece of work, will be published on the CEO website. Contrary to what EPACA suggests, the upcoming article is not part of a lobby campaign, but is intended to highlight an issue of general interest that has so far been under-reported in EU media.
    Research to shed some light on the still far from transparent world of lobbying in Brussels cannot be automatically categorised as 'lobbying'.  The article was not commissioned to influence EU policy formulation and decision-making, and as such does not, in CEO’s view, fall within the scope of the Code of Conduct for Interest Representatives. CEO sees no ground for the complaint and is confident that the Commission will reach the same conclusion and reject the complaint.
  2. Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) is one of the leading proponents of effective transparency and ethics rules around EU lobbying – and we practice what we preach. This is reflected in our entry in the Commission’s lobbying register as in extra information provided on our website.
    We follow the guidelines on “How to make a transparent registration in the European Commission Register of Interest Representatives” that were drafted by the EU Civil Society Contact Group (CSCG) in co-operation with ALTER-EU.  Following these guidelines CEO goes well beyond the Commission’s minimum transparency requirements for interest representatives. For example we give detailed information on our finances, including sources of income. We also list the issues we lobby on and give the names of staff members engaged in lobbying activities. CEO supports the Commission’s broad definition of lobbying and we continue to do so. The ALTER-EU / CSCG guidelines are the ‘gold standard’ in lobbying transparency so far, but together with the ALTER-EU coalition, CEO has repeatedly encouraged the Commission to provide further clarification on the disclosure requirements in order to improve the level of transparency for all categories of lobbyists in the register.
  3. In its statement, EPACA wrongly says that CEO has declared “more than € 400,000 […] as lobbying expenditure”. In our registration we make clear that our expenses on EU lobbying in 2008 amounted to € 126,000 (calculated following the ALTER-EU / CSCG guidelines) – around 31% of our total budget of € 402,465.
  4. In its statement EPACA claims that CEO has not filled in the “total number of members that are natural persons”. This simply reflects the fact that CEO is a non-profit foundation under Dutch law, with a board and with staff, but no members. Our registration includes the names of all those who do lobbying for CEO and on our website we disclose names of all staff members.  This criticism is another red herring.

Anyone looking at the transparency provided by EPACA’s own members may find it hard to believe that EPACA feels in a position to criticize CEO. Eleven out of 35 EPACA members are not even in the Commission’s register [1] , almost two years after it was launched. And many of those which have registered use loopholes in the register to disclose as little as possible. For example, EPACA members Avisa Partners, G-Plus and Interel Cabinet Stewart report their turnover from lobbying as “over 1 million euro”, thereby hiding the real size of their lobby activities. EPACA members that are registered do not provide any  precise information on how much each client spends, using another loophole in the register. This means it is impossible to see whether they are undertaking major lobbying campaigns for these clients or just minor assignments. This particular loophole came into being as a result of EPACA’s lobbying before the launch of the register. After the register was launched, EPACA continued to lobby to limit the quality and reliability of the information in the register.

The timing of EPACA’s complaint against CEO indicates that it is not motivated by concerns about a lack of lobby transparency, but that this is a politically motivated attempt to discredit the reputation of a watchdog group that actively campaigns for making high standards of lobby transparency mandatory. We note that EPACA did not use the review of the Commission’s register in the summer of 2009 (one year after the launch of the register) to voice concerns about CEO or other NGOs, but only to warn against improvements in the register, such as strengthening financial disclosure requirements.

It is probably no coincidence that EPACA’s attack comes at a time when the European Parliament and the Commission are about to restart negotiations over a joint register. In the Parliament there is strong support for mandatory lobbying transparency and the Commission has also expressed support for making registration and full disclosure an obligation for getting access passes to the Parliament. The disclosure requirements are also likely to be tightened, in order to improve the quality of the data in the register. This is bad news for EPACA and its five-year long campaign to undermine the momentum for lobbying transparency as a joint EP-EC register of this kind would force all EPACA member firms to register and perhaps close some of the loopholes which EPACA members use to preserve secrecy.

Contact:
Erik Wesselius, +31-30-2364422
Olivier Hoedeman: +32-2-8930930

Note

[1] EPACA members that are not on the Commission's Register of Interest Representatives: CITIGATE, DLA Piper Global Government Relations, Eurofacts OY, European Affairs Consulting Group (EACON), EuroRSCG C&O, FD Blueprint SA, Grayling, Lefebvre Hanneman Consultancy (LHC), Sarah Biontino Consultants, Sovereign Strategy, TGG and Partner.