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Wash Up The Oul’ Lobbies

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After attending a strategy meeting in Brussels organised by ALTER-EU (Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation), Simon Murtagh fills us in on the European-wide campaign for lobbying transparency.

The requirement to register as a lobbyist in the EU (as in a small member state that we know too well) has until now been a “voluntary requirement” – something which would sound like a contradiction in terms.

Unsurprisingly, many powerful Brussels lobbyists have opted not to register and it seems unbelievable, in a system as well-resourced as the EU, that meetings between politicians, officials and powerful interest groups are not mandatorily recorded, minuted and made available to the public online.

For its part, the new European Commission under Jean-Claude Juncker has made some improvements by publishing edited summaries of lobby meetings held by commissioners and the most senior Commission staff online. Juncker also hopes to create a mandatory register of lobbyists through an EU inter-institutional agreement (whether this will include his recent tax deals in his own ‘small member state’ remains unclear!).

The Brussels-based NGOs doubt this ‘IIA’ would be wide-ranging enough, however, and are calling for a full EU law to be drafted, discussed with stakeholders, and passed through the EU Parliament, Commission and Council, in order to establish a more comprehensive EU lobbying regulation system.

What can Comhlámh take from this?

  1. Where best to focus our energy? The proposal to spend several years working towards an EU law on lobbying, under a centre-right EU administration, could turn out to be massive disappointment and waste of energy for all the NGOs who focus solely on that. That is certainly the case in the UK, which has just passed a hugely disappointing lobbying law after many years of campaigning, and it remains to be seen if Ireland’s new law will be any better.
  2. Link the lobbying transparency issue to other campaigns. Whether it’s biofuels, land grabs or trade agreements like TTIP, demanding full details of the EU lobbying process should be an integral part of these campaigns. We don’t necessarily need legislation to do this but by publicly increasing the demands for lobbying transparency, as part of these campaigns, we also build the pressure on the EU to legislate.
  3. Connect to social movements. This was the strongest part of the discussion in Brussels where civil society groups from across Europe argued that the demands for lobbying transparency should be brought to the social movements who are campaigning against austerity in Spain, Greece, Ireland and elsewhere. But crucially, the groups should bring evidence to the social movements of why lobbying is relevant. So, if it’s the water protests in Ireland, we must come with evidence of who lobbied who to set up Irish Water, and who lobbies to privatise water in Ireland and the EU, and demonstrate this with banners and information.
  4. Imaginatively expand the definition of lobbying. If lobbying means the interests of powerful groups within the political process, then how are the great modern powers of corporate lawyers, accountancy, banking and financial advisers, and management consultancy firms not identified as lobbyists? Lobbying is by its nature difficult to define – this does not mean the definition should be narrow.

We need to open our minds to all of the power and potential that the lobbying issue contains, discuss it among ourselves and then respond to our European civil society partners on how best to take this campaign forward.