EU Rules Spark Debate on Lobbying and IT

After three years of work, the European Commission Monday launched the European Union's first register of political lobbyists and an accompanying code of conduct, but the move has been broadly criticized for being too blunt an instrument to achieve real transparency.

Until now there has been no attempt to regulate the Brussels lobbying process or to open it up to public scrutiny.

When the E.U. embarks on a reform of technology-related laws, or when its executive body, the European Commission takes on an industry titan like Microsoft in an antitrust battle, an army of lobbyists gets to work in an effort to influence events.

A common criticism of some of the biggest technology and telecoms companies has been that they hide behind numerous lobbying organizations and industry associations, disguising the extent of their role in the E.U. legislative and regulatory processes.

Technology companies rank among the biggest spenders on political influence in Brussels so you would expect them and their representatives in the E.U. capital to have the most to lose from signing up to the register and code.

However, far from objecting, many privately agree with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including environmental campaigner Greenpeace, that the initiative is ineffectual.

Lobbyists are being urged, but not obliged, to sign up to the register from Monday. Registered lobbyists must declare approximately how much they are paid, and by whom.

The code of conduct requires lobby groups to declare their interests when meeting E.U. politicians and officials, and to ensure that "to the best of their knowledge" the information provided to politicians is "unbiased...and not misleading."

The initiative's main criticisms are that the register is not obligatory and does not require naming individual lobbyists -- just their lobbying firm, trade association, NGO or trade union.

ALTER-EU, an alliance of NGOs campaigning for greater lobbying transparency, also argues that the rules for financial disclosure are too weak and are unfairly skewed in favor of corporate lobbyists.

"Industry lobbyists are asked to give a 'good faith estimate' of their lobbying expenditure in Brussels, while public interest organizations must disclose their total budget. Transparency campaigners demand that lobbyists be treated equally and disclose lobbying expenses as well as overall budgets," ALTER-EU said in a statement issued Monday.

Craig Holman, a campaigner at the U.S. transparency group Public Citizen described the Commission's register as "one of the world's weakest."

Brussels has never experienced a lobbying scandal on the scale of the ones in Washington, D.C., in recent years involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. European Commissioner in charge of administration, Slim Kallas, said when he started work on the register three years ago that the aim was to avert an Abramoff-style scandal.

Holman warned that by its voluntary nature and because it fails to require detailed breakdowns of lobbying finances, the European system is unlikely to achieve that aim.

Kallas defended the register at a press conference Monday. "There is a fine tuning of details ahead of us but the important thing is that we are making a very important, cultural change by going ahead with this register," he said.

The European Information and Communications Technology Association (EICTA) represents some of the biggest names in computing and consumer electronics. Its director general, Mark McGann, said that if anything the Commission should have gone further to clean up the lobbying scene in Brussels.

With around 60 member companies including Microsoft, IBM, Sun, Nokia, Samsung and smaller firms such as Bang & Olufsen, EICTA has been involved in all the recent IT-related legislative initiatives at the E.U. level.

"A compulsory register would be better," McGann said, although he stressed this is his own opinion and not the official position of EICTA. "You will never stop the more corrupt element in Brussels lobbying without a compulsory list," he added.

Statewatch, an NGO that campaigns in defense of civil liberties, dismissed the Commission's efforts to improve lobbying transparency. Its editor, Tony Bunyan said the code of conduct is largely meaningless.

"What does 'unbiased' mean? Is a Commission press release 'biased' because it presents its point of view, or is any point of view that disagrees with it biased?" he said in a Statewatch statement.

The Commission rejected criticism that it has not gone far enough to clean up lobbying in Brussels. Valerie Rampi, Kallas' spokeswoman said making the register compulsory would have required new legislation, which would take time to pass. Besides, hard law isn't needed, she added, because the Commission plans to link its transparency drive with separate transparency efforts undertaken by the European Parliament.

Lobbyists at the Parliament must register in order to get a badge that allows them access to the Parliament's premises. The Commission doesn't allow outsiders into its offices and has no plans to allow them in. Journalists are barred from Commission premises other than the press room in its headquarters.

An inter-institutional committee comprising representation from the Parliament, the Commission and the Council of Ministers, has been created to try to forge one lobbying regime for all branches of the E.U. lawmaking machine. The aim is to reach an agreement by the end of this year.

Once this regime is created, lobbyists will have to sign the Commission's register to get the badge needed to enter Parliament's premises, effectively making the register obligatory, Rampi said.

  
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