Earlier this year, CEO submitted two complaints to the EU lobby register authorities. The first was about major Brussels lobby firm Hume Brophy who we accused of facilitating a meeting with a then unregistered lobby group (the World Coal Association) and a senior Commission official, breaching the Commission’s own rules. Furthermore, we accused Hume Brophy of not declaring the World Coal Association as a lobby client.
In the second case, CEO complained about the Water supply and sanitation and Technology Parnership (WssTP) which is a network of major water utilities and other corporations with a direct financial interest in the water sector, and which provides the secretariat to the EP water group. Our complaint focussed on the fact that the EP water group used the European Parliament’s logo on its website and other materials, thereby giving the impression that it was somehow formally linked to the Parliament – which it was not. We also queried WssTP’s declaration of lobby staff and lobby expenditure in the register.
In both cases, the response to the complaints shows how toothless the register authorities under the current set-up really are. Hume Brophy apparently “understood and accepted to verify whether their clients are registered” and “accepted that they have an obligation to regularly update their client information” so the complaint was closed with “no further action”.
Meanwhile, WssTP admitted to having “inadvertently used Parliament's logo” and has now removed it and re-named ΈΡ Water Group' into 'MEP Water Group' (although CEO is not exactly sure what difference that tiny change makes!). WssTP has also “corrected the information on staff … and the corresponding financial information”. As a result, this was considered to be “satisfactory” and again, the complaint was closed.
These are troubling responses for several reasons. Firstly, these two organisations effectively breached the rules of the Commission (Hume Brophy), the Parliament (WssTP) and the code of conduct for lobbyists without detection by any authority. Secondly, when these matters were raised, the lobby register authority was happy to just accept excuses along the lines of ‘oops...sorry’ and to receive subsequently-updated registrations. CEO has not been informed of any penalty being applied in either case, meaning that, the privileges which go with being part of the lobby register – holding Parliament access passes (Hume Brophy has 16; WssTP has 2) and the ability to hold high-level meetings at the Commission (since December 2014, Hume Brophy has held at least seven, including with commissioners Malmström and Hogan; WssTP has held 2) - have continued, without problem.
This illustrates perfectly the problem with the EU’s current lobby register which is entirely voluntary. There are no sanctions (other than suspension from the register) and that is apparently only enforced in cases when there has been “repeated non-cooperation, repeated inappropriate behaviour, or serious non-compliance with the code of conduct”.
ALTER-EU has long demanded that the register be made legally-binding. In our view it is only the real threat of sanctions which will tackle the endemic problem of dodgy data in the register and which will force the unregistered to sign up. Submitting inaccurate and / or misleading information must be specified as an offence and new sanctions should be introduced such as the temporary suspension of lobby 'privileges', fines and the introduction of a black-list of suspended organisations.
The European Commission is currently consulting on whether to introduce what is being called a de facto mandatory lobby register based on a series of incentives or ‘carrots’ to encourage lobbyists to follow the rules. These cases and many more (Transparency International estimates that half the lobby register data is flawed in one way or another) shows that this is not enough and a legally-binding register is the only way forward.