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Vice-President of the European Commission
Lobbying – a legitimate exercise?
Launch of the 'Guide to effective lobbying in Brussels' survey/Brussels
3 June 2013
Ladies and gentlemen,
Last week I read an article in the Irish Times by a journalist who had been invited to today's event in which she expressed surprise about the fact that I had been invited to speak at this event.
I have no idea whether the journalist in question is in fact here today – and I'm sure that if she is she will no doubt make herself know during the Q&A session a little later! – but I hope in any case that she will forgive me if I use her article as the starting point for my comments today.
Let me firstly make it clear – I am not here to criticise the media. The article in the Irish Times was a perfectly well-reasoned, well-written article expressing the opinions of the journalist concerned and the same is true for other reports.
The Irish Times article deals with the question of whether lobbying is acceptable or whether the lobby influence is too big and needs to be tackled by politicians. Like many other articles before it on the subject of lobbying in Brussels, it expresses the perception that it is the lobbyists who hold the real reins of power in Brussels, and that they exert undue influence over the institutions.
From that point of view, my very presence here today, at an event organised for lobbyists by lobbyists on how they lobby most effectively, might be seen by some as proof positive that lobbying is indeed all-powerful!
But the real reason why I am here is in fact precisely to try to dispel this perception of lobbying in Brussels as somehow controlling the European policy agenda – a perception that sadly is extremely widespread.
There is I think a general view of lobbying as being the sole domain of 'big business', of giant multinational corporations with unlimited quantities of money to spend on making sure that we poor misguided policymakers do the right thing and favour their interests over all others.
This murky image of backhanders and undue influence has been fuelled by films and TV, and – let's be honest – revelations that this sort of activity does indeed occasionally go on (you only have to look at the headlines in all the UK papers today to see that this is the case!).
But as with so many things, the reality is somewhat less dramatic than the perception.
In fact, lobbyists come in all shapes and sizes and represent a very broad spectrum of interest groups.
Yes, big business is here – but so are environmental NGOs, youth organisations, religious groups, civil liberty campaigners, local and regional governments, industry associations, think tanks, law firms and many more besides. And sometimes the smaller entities are even financially supported by the EU.
In the popular image, lobbyists are fat cats smoking cigars and slipping wads of cash into the pockets of unscrupulous EU officials; in reality, most of them in fact are dedicated and hard-working individuals who care about their area of expertise, want to ensure the best future for it and some of them are well paid, others less.
When it's put in these terms, I think it's easier to see lobbying as a legitimate exercise, a chance for citizens, organisations and interest groups to get involved in the European political process because they are genuinely concerned about the impact that future EU policies may have.
Note that I say 'get involved' – not 'influence', or 'buy' or 'derail' or 'abuse'. By definition, all lobbyists have an axe to grind, an interest to defend – but most do so honestly and fairly, often passionately, and within the structures of the policy-making process.
I want to make clear as well that Commissioners, MEPs and the Ministers in the Council have a duty to listen to what citizens, businesses, NGOs, associations etc. think, want or fear when it comes to policy making at EU level.
That's why we must all be open to listening, to hearing different views and to gathering information. But at the same time, we must not forget that our core business is not merely a listening exercise; our core business is to decide and since no one can decide alone, Commissioners spend a lot of time with MEPs, ministers and ambassadors to listen to them, convince them or negotiate with them.
That's why we need a lobbying framework. Listening is part of the process, and like any political process, it should be subject to specific rules that are there to help both lobbyists and the people they lobby work more effectively.
For example, we want lobbyists to understand how the political process works so that we can avoid wasting time listening to views that are no longer relevant or impossible to implement.
We want lobbyists to be transparent about who they represent or where they come from. We want them to be precise and provide accurate information. And of course, we want them to behave in an ethical manner. Threats or indecent offers are not good lobbying. Bad lobbying is an enormous risk for your client, but also a risk for the reputation of the entire lobbying community.
And, I should add, all of us who are lobbied have our political beliefs and convictions and a good decision-maker has his or her principles and inner compass which will not change because of 'bad' lobbying.
That's why I am always happy to welcome the efforts of public affairs associations or companies like Burson-Marsteller to reflect upon their profession and invest in good practices.
But the EU institutions should not rely only upon the lobbying community. We too have to provide a strong framework which prevents the democratic process from undue influence.
Attempts to externally influence policy-making are not a new phenomenon. I would say that since the very beginning of European integration, the Community interest had to be protected against unilateral influence from national or private interests. That of course is why the European Commission has internal rules and procedures in place to protect its decision-making process.
These rules have been regularly up-dated and in particular under this current Commission. And they are, I believe, pretty good rules! I am pleased to see, for example in the German media at the moment, that our rules and procedures are even quoted as good examples and inspiration for national debates when it comes to what some call "the revolving door".
However, things evolve over time and the number of organisations, associations, companies and other players in an EU with increased competences and an increased number of Member States increases as well.
Therefore, it was right that the Commission and the Parliament took the initiative together in 2011 to create a novelty: the Transparency Register operated jointly by the Commission and Parliament.
As I am sure you all know, the register was established to replace and expand two existing separate registers run by our two institutions.
Not for nothing is it called a Transparency Register rather than a lobby register. We deliberately set out to avoid giving a limited definition of lobbying for the purposes of the register. Lobbying means different things to different people; and the phenomenon we talk about it does not only concern "lobbyists" in the narrow sense of the term. As I said before, there is a large variety of players who try to get their point of view somehow into the minds of the decision-makers or public opinion or even journalists.
When we conceived the Transparency Register, we started from the premise that lobbying in this broad sense is a fully legitimate exercise, and is indeed part of the political game – not only in the EU, but everywhere. Although sometimes when I read the papers, I get the impression that some people seem to think lobbying exists only in Brussels and Washington (and perhaps London now!).
Citizens have a right to expect that this unavoidable process is transparent and takes place in compliance with the law as well as in due respect of ethical principles.
The Register, which now has more than 5,600 entries, provides
with direct and single access to information about who is trying to influence the EU decision-making process, which interests they pursue or represent and what level of resources are invested in these activities.
In other words, if I may refer again to the article in the Irish Times, the register is not about tackling the number of lobbyists or their budgets, but rather ensuring that they all play the game in full transparency and follow the same basic set of ethical rules, in addition to respecting the general laws of the Member States, of course.
By shining a light on the profession, by showing that it is normally a respectable and legitimate part of the political process, you can dispel the image of dodgy deals behind closed doors that continues to dominate perceptions and makes your activities suspicious to so many people.
There are critics who ask why, if this is one of our principal aims, is the register not mandatory, as surely this would be the best way to ensure that we are truly transparent?
The pros and cons of mandatory vs. voluntary registers is a debate for another day, and I am certain that we will have plenty of opportunities to discuss this issue over the coming months as we carry out our review of the register.
But what I will say is that there are indeed both pros and cons to mandatory registration, that it is not the panacea that some make it out to be. I hear mixed experiences from the US, where registration is mandatory; I read the recommendation of a distinguished academic1 to stick to a voluntary approach because this would be much more effective in his view. But we will see and we will listen to all the views on this issue.
For better or for worse, we have opted for the voluntary route up to now – and I should say that our choice has been widely vindicated, as we have more than 5,600 entries into the register already.
And recently, we have had some registrations from some rather prominent entities which had been absent from the Register before.2
It's clear from the survey presented here today that transparency is one of the main issues when it comes to lobbying. The Transparency Register, in its first two years, has proven to be a good tool at shining a little more light on this phenomenon and on precisely what constitutes the profession of many who are here in the room today.
I am sure we can still do better, and this year's review of the register will hopefully show us the way. For example, I still hope that Council will join the register, to give us an even more comprehensive backing of the approach.
In conclusion, I'd like to return to the article on lobbying that I referred to at the start.
Today's event is about effective lobbying. In the article, this was taken to mean ensuring that lobbyists can exert as much influence over the lawmakers as possible.
In reality, though, what really makes lobbying most effective is being transparent, accurate, having nothing to hide, and following the ethical guidelines that signing the register implies. Businesses, NGOs or any other organisation who do that – either directly or by hiring others – have a far greater chance of getting their voice heard and can indeed make a positive contribution to a better and more informed debate.
And that is why I am here today – not to lend credibility to the image of lobbyists holding the strings of power but rather to support the lobbying profession in its efforts to be more transparent and ethical.
The study makes for very interesting reading, and I'm looking forward to hearing your questions a little later on.
Thank you for your attention.
Professor van Schendelen, a Dutch professor, said this at the presentation of his book "The art of lobbying the EU" last week.
Monsanto and Deutsche Bank have registered in May.