A view has taken hold in Brussels that the attempt launched in 2011 to create a European Union register of lobbyists has misfired. The failings of the voluntary register set up by the European Commission and then merged with the European Parliament’s register as the Joint Transparency Register of “interest representatives” are frequently rehearsed.
Transparency campaigners say that lobbyists should be given no choice as to whether or not to register, and that only a compulsory register will work. One of the lobbyists’ own professional associations, the European Public Affairs Consultancies Association – which ten years ago was not a natural ally of the transparency campaigners – is also arguing for compulsory registration, particularly because it is unhappy about those organisations, notably law firms, that have refused to join the register.
Meanwhile the Commission, which bears much of the administrative burden of the register, warns that making registration mandatory would be fraught with legal risks, because there is no sure foundation in EU law for such a compulsory register. A legal challenge under Article 11 of the EU’s treaty might result.
And yet, whatever the complaints, the graph above suggests that registrations have lately been undergoing something of a mini-boom. At the start of this year, there were 6,055 bodies – whether companies, individuals or associations – on the register. In the first two months of the year, the total rose to 6,368, suggesting another 313 names had been added – ie, an increase of 5%. That rate of growth has not been the norm since July 2012. However, this headline increase of 313 has been reduced by companies leaving the register altogether (which is very rare), and companies that have their entry suspended temporarily because they are slow in renewing their annual declaration (which is common). Our own estimate, after examination of the register, is that the number of new entries to the register between 6 January and 3 March was 462 – an addition of 7.6%.
So what has changed? Why this pick-up in the register’s fortunes?
The types of organisations that have registered in recent weeks suggest that the Commission’s consultations on possible legislation constitute an important impulse towards registration.
The Commission has recently been consulting – ie, inviting responses from individuals and organisations – on copyright (see page 12); on environmental and energy state aid; and on air traffic management. A corresponding increase in registrations from bodies that have a stake in these three policy areas is discernible.
But there were consultations last year as well as this, so their presence does not in itself explain the sharp increase in registrations.
What seems to have shifted is the perception by interest groups as to how their response to a consultation might be received and what information they might get back in return.
The Parliament and the Commission do make a distinction between respondents that are on the register and those that are not. In the absence of the information that an entry on the register provides, the Commission treats a submission from an organisation that is not on the register as if it were simply the opinion of a single individual and not as a company or association position.
Officials in the Commission say that there has not been any change in the rules, but that lobbyists outside have become more aware of the distinction – in part because of publicity in December about the register.
Other Commission sources suggest that inside the Commission, officials and European commissioners have become more diligent about checking the register before consenting, for example, to attend outside events.
So the lobbying world sees incentives to being on the register that it did not see before.
If the increase in registrations is sustained, it will not dispel all doubts about the register. The transparency campaigners will still argue that while registration is voluntary the register cannot curtail secretive and possibly illicit lobbying. Business groups will still grumble about being put at a competitive disadvantage by a burden of paperwork and disclosure that is not imposed equally on everyone.
And a fast-growing register could give rise to more complaints about the quality of information that it contains. The register’s critics say that neither the Commission nor the Parliament does enough to check entries in the register. (The general principle is that registrants are responsible for the accuracy of the information that they submit.)
Unless the Commission commits more people to the task, or the register is simplified, complaints about accuracy are likely to grow.
Yet, this year’s increase in registrations should not be written off. It suggests that the register is advancing beyond its infancy.
Research by Pierre de Boisséson
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