Lobbyists must come out of the shadows
Doubts remain about the value of the EU's voluntary public affairs register - Chris Whitehouse probes the statistics
To date, more than 3,700 ''interest representatives'' have signed up to the European Commission's register of those lobbying, or engaging with the European institutions. This may seem a staggeringly large figure, suggesting a widespread commitment to registration. In fact, a closer look at the statistics shows a very different and worrying pattern emerging.
More than 165 public affairs agencies or individual commercial lobbyists have registered. This suggests a willingness by one section of the commercial political consultancy profession to engage. But it only constitutes a small percentage of those agencies around the member states, which derive substantial income from monitoring and influencing the commission. In truth, the figure should by now be sailing past 500 and rising steadily.
There are several thousand think tanks, non-governmental organisations and academic groups registered. Again, it shows some enthusiasm and a certain degree of willingness to be recorded, though there remain thousands who have not registered. But the glaring anomaly in the list of registrants to date is the tiny number of law firms. Just 19 out of the hundreds, potentially thousands, around the union who advise clients on how to influence the European institutions. This is a significant part of their business.
The only way to force the legal profession and the more reluctant members of the public affairs sector to adopt the principles of registration, client identification and income disclosure may be to move to a compulsory form of regulation. Arguments about confidentiality on the part of lawyers would then no longer wash and those trying to hide in the shadows would be exposed to the light of openness and transparency.
The fears of adverse publicity from declaration have been exaggerated. There has not been a series of media exposÚs about agencies' clients, nor has there been any effective attempt by unregistered agencies to poach clients from their counterparts listed in the register. Indeed, why would an unregistered agency invest effort in trying to do this when a client so listed clearly already has an existing public affairs contract? The time is much better spent in identifying potential clients that have not.
So, just on statistical grounds, it might be harsh to say the registration exercise to date has been a failure - but it is far from being a major success. More important for the future is where we go from here. The European Parliament is also committed to introduce a register. It already has displayed transparency to a limited extent by declaring the names of those agencies whose staff have been afforded privileged access to parliament buildings, through the allocation of a security pass.
But we must not end up with a series of parallel registers based upon different principles and criteria. Institutions must continue to work together to create a single common register that meets their needs and those of the citizens of Europe, who have every right to know who is being paid to lobby who.
As an agency, the Whitehouse Consultancy has always been absolutely committed to openness. We support registration and encourage the parliament and commission to continue to put pressure on all those lobbying, from whatever professional discipline, to come in from the cold and subscribe to basic principles of good practice.
One point upon which we differ most strongly from the parliament and, indeed, from many other agencies in the sector is that we believe it to be fundamentally wrong - bordering on a constitutional outrage - that some agencies are given privileged access to the parliament through the issuing of passes to their staff.
A basic democratic principle must be that all citizens, whether individuals or corporate, must be equal under the law and have equal access to the institutions of government. Regardless of whether a joint register is successfully delivered in the near future, the scandalous practice of issuing passes to lobbyists should cease.
Why should 4,400 individuals currently be singled out from the rest of the citizenship of Europe for such privileges? The issuing of such passes is a carrot to encourage agencies to come into the public domain, but if the price is undermining of basic principles of equality of access - it is a price too high.
The same result could better be achieved by the abolition of that system of privilege and the introduction, instead, of mandatory registration. Both the parliament and commission must take that next step.
Chris Whitehouse is managing director of The Whitehouse Consultancy, a member of the European Public Affairs Consultancies Association