The European commission has called for tighter checks on lobbying after revelations about the business activities of two of its former leaders, which have highlighted the revolving doors in EU institutions.
Under the proposals from the EU’s executive arm, lobbyists would be obliged to join a public register if they want to meet MEPs, senior officials at the European council or senior diplomats from countries holding the EU’s six-month rotating presidency.
The protracted debate about the role of lobbyists in EU lawmaking has come under renewed scrutiny since the former commission president José Manuel Barroso joined the investment bank Goldman Sachs. It emerged last week that the former commissioner Neelie Kroes had failed to declare a directorship in an offshore company while she was in office.
Campaigners dismissed the plans as “timid, cosmetic changes” because they exclude officials working in EU member states’ embassies in Brussels. Critics say this is an important loophole, because industry groups call on their national diplomats first when they seek to influence EU law.
Frans Timmermans, the first vice-president of the European commission, said it was an injustice to describe his proposals as timid because “everyone in a position of decision making” would be covered.
“How we make decisions in Brussels and who influences them is a matter for public concern and scrutiny,” he said. “The commission wants all EU institutions to shed light on this.“Citizens need to know who we are listening to. We need to be open about when and how lobbying happens and have some rules in place about how it works.”
Timmermans declined to comment on Barroso or Kroes at length while investigations into their actions were under way. “The commission will first establish the facts and then act if and when appropriate,” he said.
The commission, which is responsible for drafting and enforcing EU laws, created a register of lobbyists in 2008. The European parliament, which plays a significant role in drafting EU law, has had a register since 1995, but interest groups are not obliged to join it. The registers merged in 2011, but the two institutions apply different rules.
The council of ministers, arguably the EU’s most powerful lawmaking body, has no common rules on lobbying, although it does have observer status on the EU register.
The EU’s 28 member states have varying transparency standards and a history of resisting common rules.
The campaign group Transparency International estimates that 37,350 people are involved in lobbying EU institutions. More than 9,900 organisations are listed on the EU register of interest, spanning professional lobbyists, law firms, NGOs, thinktanks and trade associations. The list, however, has been criticised as unreliable, because some organisations list all their staff to avoid being caught out, making it harder to identify genuine lobbyists. Others involved in lobbying have avoided joining the register.
The European parliament welcomed the proposal to extend the lobbyists’ register to all EU institutions. The French Socialist politician Sylvie Guillaume, a vice-president of the European parliament, said member states needed to face up to their responsibilities. “At a time when several scandals have been revealed and citizens’ trust is eroded, it is vital to be entirely transparent about the various interest groups gravitating around the European institutions,” she said.
Transparency International delivered a scathing verdict on the reforms. Daniel Freund at the campaign group’s EU office said: “Citizens and lobbyists are demanding stricter rules for lobbying the EU, but the institutions are not listening.”
The German Green MEP Sven Giegold said the measures were an important step toward transparency, but the proposals “stopped halfway”.
“Only commissioners and director generals are currently included, while lobbying of other senior staff and heads of units in the EU agencies would remain in the dark,” he said. “Lobby transparency will remain empty words for the permanent representations of the member states in Brussels, not to speak of the governments in their capitals.”